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The academies programme is a failed right-wing experiment

Academies have smashed a national education framework and national teachers’ terms and conditions while enriching a few top executives, says JYOTI WILKINSON

WHEN Nelson Mandela stated that “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” he was correct.  

Throughout history, educators and teachers from Socrates to Karl Marx have influenced and changed the world around them, ensuring that future generations could build upon their work, break new ground and ensure that society, and the world, continues to evolve. 

However, these halcyon days have now but become a distant memory. Today, the education system in England is deep in crisis. 
This crisis has been deliberately propagated by the Tory regime and its allies in local government, which has caused a ticking time bomb by ruthlessly slashing education funding, which a new report from the TUC identifies as suffering a 14 per cent cut since 2010.

However, this is far from the whole story.  

Pupils and teachers alike are subject to a dispiriting regime of endless tests, targets and a narrow, right-wing curriculum which is designed only to churn out on a conveyer belt the workforce which the capitalist system needs at any particular time. For socialists, a key purpose of education is to uplift and elevate the human spirit, but this is ruthlessly stamped out within the rigged system.

Unsurprisingly, there is the biggest teacher shortage for decades, which is driven by low pay and teachers’ punishing workload, and the deprofessionalisation of teachers, who are forced to conform with the system in many schools through a regime of threats of disciplinary action and capability procedures. Management bullying of the workforce and discrimination is now shamefully commonplace across the whole school system.

Since 2010, the Tories have followed a strategy of smashing the state education system, and a key element of this strategy has been using one of the tools gifted to them by New Labour — the academy programme.

Cherished by Tony Blair and his neoliberal apparatchiks, New Labour was in no doubt about its key purpose. During the 2005-10 Labour government, ministers described it as an opportunity to “introduce the DNA of the private sector” into the public sector. 

From their onset, academies did not employ teachers in accordance with national terms and conditions, and the government policy of handing over millions of pounds’ worth of public assets and the schools workforce to academy trusts began.  

As with many other New Labour policies, it was enthusiastically taken up by the coalition government, and one of the first pieces of legislation introduced by David Cameron and his despised then secretary of state for education Michael Gove when the coalition government came to power in 2010 was the Academies Act.

Like any policy in which public services are gifted to cold-blooded privateers, the claim that the academy programme is anything but incredibly expensive is a fallacy steeped in the greatest realms of neoliberal fantasy — the government spent over £19 billion on academies last year, at the same time as local authorities continued to face swingeing cuts and be starved of vital funding.

Hangers on from the failed New Labour era, such as those who remain in the Parliamentary Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, all claim that academies raise standards.

However, this is not the case, even when using the government’s distorted system for measuring school performance. 

Most academies are in multi-academy trusts (Mats) and the DfE’s official statistics into Mat performance measures for 2017 indicate that at Key Stage 4 over half of Mats had Progress 8 scores that were below the national average for state-funded mainstream schools.

The DfE has also reported that approximately two thirds of Mats (66 per cent) had an EBacc entry figure which is below the national average for state-funded mainstream schools.

The DfE further reported that 76 per cent of Mats had an “EBacc attainment at grade 5/C or above” rate which was below the national average for all state-funded mainstream schools.
However, there is one thing which academies have been very successful at — lowering the pay of the workforce and increasing the pay of the management.

The DfE’s most recent School Workforce Census data indicated that, in the secondary phase, classroom teachers’ salaries are £1,500 lower in academies than in local authority-maintained schools. In the primary phase the gap is even greater — classroom teachers’ salaries are £1,700 lower in academies than in local authority-maintained schools.   

However, it has not been austerity for everyone in the academy sector by any means — the DfE’s own data shows that greed and excess at trustee and CEO level is the order of the day.

In many academy trusts, there is excessive spending on trustee pay (which includes CEO and executive head teacher pay). The DfE has reported that, in 2015/16 (which are the most recently published DfE figures), academy trusts made 102 payments of over £150,000 to trustees. In many cases, these were single academy trusts. 

All in all, 843 payments of over £100,000 were made by academy trusts to trustees in 2015/16, which was 30 more than in 2014/15.
Even Ofsted, the government’s school inspectorate, has commented on this issue, stating that “salary levels for the chief executives of some of these Mats do not appear to be commensurate with the level of performance of their trusts or constituent academies. The average pay of the chief executives in these seven trusts is higher than the Prime Minister’s salary, with one chief executive’s salary reaching £225,000.”

There is an inadequate level of DfE scrutiny and therefore public accountability of spending by Mats. The government masks frequently excessive levels of leadership and CEO pay when reporting income and expenditure in academies.

An example of this is that the DfE chooses only to group all salary levels of £150,000-plus into one category for reporting purposes, when individual academy trust annual reports and accounts reveal that CEO pay is often much higher than this. 

For example, in one academy trust, the highest-paid employee received an annual salary in 2015/16 of between £420,000 and £430,000.

The DfE revealed in its first academy sector annual report and accounts that, in 2015/16, there were 122 academy trusts which pay at least one employee over £150,000 per year. Twenty-nine of these were single academy trusts, one of which had only 355 pupils and 19 teachers. 

One of the government’s favourite academy trusts is the Harris Federation. CEO Sir Dan Moynihan received a knighthood under the coalition government.

The latest Harris Federation annual report and accounts shows that the number of salaries over £100,000 increased from 25 to 29 last year. The number of salaries over £150,000 has increased from eight to 10. 

Most specifically, the pay of the Harris CEO has increased from within the £420,000 to £425,000 pay band to within the £440,000 to £445,000 pay band, giving an increase of £15,000 over 12 months as a minimum.

The Harris CEO’s remuneration package includes pension contributions of between £50,000 and £55,000, taking his remuneration to approximately £500,000 per year.   

In addition, Harris pays another senior executive in the £260,000 to £270,000 pay band and a third senior executive is paid on the £240,001 to £250,000 pay band.

The ratio between the salary of the Harris Federation CEO and a teacher on the lowest salary level is approximately 17:1. Harris has refused to exercise discretions in the past to give teachers pay increases which teachers have received in other schools.   

It has to be stressed that all of this is paid for out of public funding which should be spent on the education of children and young people, including the employment of teachers who are crucial to their learning.    

There is resistance to this. In Derbyshire, teachers in the NASUWT union have taken weeks of strike action against the academy conversion of their schools in 2010, supported by local communities and parent action groups. 

In 2017, the Tories took control of Derbyshire County Council by a handful of votes in a handful of seats. This has spurred a wave of academisation which Labour had managed to hold off for four years.

The council has even handed key provision for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities to an academy trust.

Earlier this year, NASUWT members at Friesland School, Derbyshire, took several days of strike action and continuous action short of strike action against academy conversion, supported by the local community and a parents’ action group. 

The school governing body, with a Liberal Democrat chair, was determined to press ahead with academisation despite the fact that the school is classified “good” by Ofsted and there was no need for it to become an academy. 

The school assets and workforce have been handed over to a small academy trust with a chief executive on over £150,000 per year and which is systematically dismantling the teachers’ employment framework which had been painstakingly negotiated with Derbyshire County Council. 

Labour must develop an alternative to the academy sector. The supporters of academisation, some of whom are within the labour movement, claim that the system is ruined by a few bad apples such as Bright Tribe, which was the subject of the recent Panorama documentary, Profits Before Pupils. 

However, the academy programme is a right-wing initiative to smash a national education framework and national teachers’ terms and conditions and enrich the few at the expense of the many. 

By its very nature, the academy system is beyond reform, because by their very nature academies do not have to apply national teachers’ terms and conditions and most national school regulations. There can be no “Labour academies” in the same way as privatised health provision cannot be turned into a Labour project.

In the same way as Labour intends to do for other privatised parts of the public sector, Labour must develop a strategy to return all academies to local authorities, together with their assets and workforces so that democratically accountable local authorities can develop co-ordinated, progressive education provision for the communities they serve. 

As a start, no new academy funding agreements should be made or renewed and the £19 billion spent on academies should start to flow back to local authorities. 

Local communities, parents, students and the workforce unions should be engaged to be part of this strategy. 

The academies sector should be consigned to the dustbin of history as a failed right-wing experiment and we should start to rebuild a progressive education system for all.

 

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