Whither all these promises?


When the coalition introduced the Education White Paper and legislated the Academies Act and Education Bill in 2010 and 2011, respectively, they argued that these reforms would be seen as huge boon for the education sector. The White Paper brought together several elements of the Coalition’s reform agenda; the big society and localism, an emphasis on increasing parental choice and school competition, and a drive to remove bureaucracy and allow teachers more control.

It seemed as if the coalition wanted to create a revolution in the education system whereby schools would be given ‘the freedoms and flexibilities they need to continue to drive up the standard, narrow the attainment gap between the most and least advantaged, and create a ‘world-beating system.’ The Academies bill was one of the first pieces of legislation that brought, what was thought to be, the all-important structural changes to schools by giving sponsors a greater deal of autonomy.

The Academy sponsors would be both autonomous as well as accountable for the performance of schools. Autonomy meant that the academies did not have to follow the national curriculum, but could choose their own curriculum to achieve the best results, as long as it was “broad and balanced”. The authority of local authorities would be on the receiving end of these reforms, as they would no longer be in charge of funding, which would come directly to the sponsors from the Education Funding Agency.

Prized as the Academy school status was made to look like, all schools, not just the poorly performing schools—as was done by the Labour—but any school rated as outstanding or good would be eligible for academy status. Poorly performing schools could only join if they were part of a group that included a high performing school or if they joined an existing academy trust. The idea was that the academies would have a ripple effect by partnering with at least one other underperforming school to help drive improvement across the board.

The Act also enabled new Free Schools to be set up in communities where there was demand from local parents for a better school. They would work under the same premise as Academies. The big difference was that they were not based on an existing school and could be started by a wide range of groups. They were similar to the Charter School system in the United States and in Sweden, where non-profit and profit-making groups can set up schools, funded by the government, but free from its control. 

The Education Act 2011 brought in systemic changes which included new legal powers to help teachers minimise poor behaviour, tackle underperformance, and to improve the way in which schools were held to account.

The results of the implementation of these Acts  brings into question  the claims about the apparent superiority of these reforms over what they have been attempting to replace- the good ole public school system.

But the much touted equity in distribution of resources remains elusive. More resources are going to the already better performing schools, especially those serving the families from high and middle-income groups. For example, the first free schools set up in 2011 to accommodate a burgeoning school-age population, were set up in middle-class areas, within schools rated outstanding by OFSTED. This would mean more resources going to already well-served areas and less to schools in need.

While the advocates in Coalition claim that they wanted to use the outstanding schools as a yardstick for the other schools to follow, it does not make much sense and defies the logic of change. The statistics published by the government itself defy these claims which showed that the majority of free schools first set up were located outside the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods of the country.

Only three schools – Nishkam free school, Rainbow primary school and Ark Atwood primary academy – were in the most deprived 10% of areas of England, with nine out of 24 are in the most deprived 20% of areas. A similar analysis by the Guardian showed that ‘10-minute commuting areas around free school locations consisted of 57%  better-off, educated and professional households compared with the English average of 42.8%.’

The Anti Academies Alliance has observed that this would create a two tier education system, where the schools deemed most successful would be independent from their Local Authority, and leave LAs with schools that needed dire help in already deprived areas. It would divide children into those who would continue to receive a sterling education and the rest who would have to be content with receiving bare minimum education.

The National Association of School Masters Union of Women (NASUWT) shared their concern. Contrary to the Coalition’s goal of de-stratifying the education sector, this would further “segregate and fragment communities” even more. Families would opt to move to a catchment area with a better or established reputation, thus undermining local authority schools and undercutting their incentive to improve.

A selection bias taints the performance level of Academies, where a report by the National Audit Office showed 26% of sponsored Academies were judged outstanding compared to 18% of all maintained schools. This is seen as mostly being the result of the reduced intake of disadvantaged students at the Academies. Students in those Academies also had the option of substituting GCSE courses with much easier vocational alternatives, thus allowing for a greater pass percentage rate. The same NAO report confirmed that academies do have a significantly higher proportion of entries for non GCSE alternative qualifications than other schools, including 10% higher than comparable maintained schools. The NAO reported that “substantial improvements by the less disadvantaged pupils are driving academies overall improved performance”.

With more schools opting for Academy status, the local authorities’ ability to assess and monitor the performance of schools, especially in regard to vulnerable children, is also curtailed. In an interview with the Guardian, Debbie Jones, director of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services said “Although we have funding to provide safeguarding services and an element of support services through the early intervention grant, a lot of services that were previously funded through the old regime will now be directly funded through the pupil premium.”

But with the academies allowed to determine how the pupil premium is spent, they could choose not to spend it on services that would otherwise be considered essential. And without the LGA watchdogs the disadvantaged children could fall through the net. 

So the question remains: Whither all these promises? The neoliberal trend of putting public money in private hands does not seem to be working. What is needed perhaps is a serious effort to improve the public schools, make them more democratic, responsive to, and integrated with, the communities that these schools serve. We should ask why the taxpayers’ money be dumped into academies and free schools, when they may actually exacerbate rather than remove the inequities in the society. Is it wise to keep allowing more Academies and Free schools to come into being and flourish even when they are unable to meet the stated policy goals?







About kirin mirza

Born in Hong Kong(11.5 yrs).Lived in Pakistan(15 yrs).Currently reside in England(4 yrs).Travelled the world.Studied, Politics, International Reations, Political Science,Developement and Journalism. Worked freelance for newspapers and websites.

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