Problems with England’s academies won’t stop

Expect less accountability, stealth by selection and big management bills, warns Warwick Mansell.

Imagine handing over control of many millions of pounds worth of public assets to a group of friends, or even relatives. Imagine also allowing complete freedom to those in control of such assets to set the publicly-funded pay of those working for them at whatever level they like. And then watch as pay rates among senior staff soar.

This is one of the problems we have in relation to academy schools in England, following what may be one of the largest, but still largely-under-the-radar, set of public sector structural reforms of the past 30 years.

Academization, which has seen more than half of English state secondary schools and nearly a quarter of primaries change their governance structures profoundly since 2010, has a set of structural difficulties which are only going to become clearer as the years go by.

Academies are state-funded schools which are allowed to leave the auspices of their democratically accountable local authorities to become quasi-independent institutions, funded and subject to some oversight by the Department for Education (Dfe), rather than local councils. They are set up as charitable trusts and are not allowed to make a profit, although they can often take on the appearance of commercial organizations.

They were set up on a small scale from 2002 under Tony Blair and, under New Labour, targeted at usually struggling inner-city comprehensives where it was thought that a radical new approach to school improvement was needed. ‘Sponsors’ were sought – often wealthy business people – who were given control over the governance, curricula and pay and conditions in such schools in the hope that what policymakers saw as their dynamism would rub off on the schools and they would be turned around.

By 2010, there were still only 203 such schools out of 22,000 state institutions in England, and there was only limited evidence of success on the ground. However, soon after becoming Education Secretary, Michael Gove pledged to put rocket boosters under the scheme, allowing successful secondary schools and, for the first time, primaries, to opt for academy status.

Schools worked out they could boost their budgets by converting, and thousands did so: there are now nearly 2,000 secondary academies and approaching 4,000 primaries. The academies policy has similarities to charter schools in the United States, but England’s much more centralized policymaking structure has allowed its reforms to proceed much faster.

Soaring salaries

In recent years, the structural downsides of the academies scheme have become ever more apparent.

In a reflection of the policy’s origins, academy trusts are set up with an often-small group of super-governors known as ‘members’ – akin to shareholders – in control of their governance. This can – and has – given friends and even husband-and-wife teams effective control of decision-making, subject only to possible intervention by a government department which has thousands of schools to supervise and has sometimes seemed to lack effective powers.

With academy trusts increasingly covering many schools – though on average they are still much smaller than local authorities – budgets under their control can run into hundreds of millions of pounds.

The sector has been beset by scandals in recent years, with a common concern often seeming to be that a close group of decision-makers have acted in ways later seen to conflict with the wider public interest.

Recent cases have included a £120,000-a-year ‘superhead’ (USD$156,000) who was found to have been paid a ‘second salary’ worth £160,000 (USD$208,000) over two years through two separate companies; an academy trust paying out £700,000 (USD$910,000) over two years to a firm owned by its chief executive; and tales of first-class rail travel, fine dining and expensive trans-Atlantic trips.

All pay within academies is also deregulated, meaning that trusts do not have to follow national salary scales which have applied to local authority schools. There are many more trusts than local authorities, and academy chief executive pay is now often above that paid to local authority staff: one chief executive amassed nearly £500,000 (USD$643,900) in pay and benefits in 2015-16 alone. So it seems highly likely that the overall pay bill for management has soared under this new regime, at a time when schools’ funding increases overall are set to fall well behind rising costs.

Deregulation adds new pressure 

There are other structural problems with academization. The replacement of a system where one body supervises provision across a local area with a structure of separate academy trusts, institutionally set up to compete against each other, can create some clear risks.

For example, academies now set their own admissions policies. With pressures on each to raise exam results, schools have incentives to avoid taking on more challenging pupils, who might bring down their results. Deregulation of admissions seems likely to exacerbate such a tendency and it remains a mystery why any school, within England’s largely comprehensive system, would need control over the rules that decide which children it admits.

Accountability is also a huge issue. Unlike local authorities, which are subject to the election of councillors, academy trusts are not affected by local democracy, and neither, of course, is the DfE. With some multi-academy trusts now proposing to close schools as budgets tighten, the fact that the decision can be taken with no meaningful local input whatsoever – the DfE approves or rejects closure proposals from the trust – will become painfully clear where communities are affected.

Parents and teachers who have raised concerns with me about goings-on in individual academy trusts also routinely warn that accountability can be circular, with the DfE referring the complaint back to the trust and local councillors and even MPs having no influence.

Finally, there is the issue of privatization. Although academies are non-profit, they are set up through contracts agreed in private with the DfE. The only semblance of ‘local’ scrutiny actually comes through a system of ‘regional schools commissioners’. These are DfE civil servants, taking decisions on schools’ futures with a group of headteachers, all drawn from the academy sector, and appointed experts. Such meetings take place in private. This new structure of decision-making was not publicly discussed or consulted on before its introduction.

And, as argued above, trusts can be controlled by small groups of associates.

While overt profit-making is barred, this is a system where the key decisions have been privatized in the sense of being under the control of small numbers of people, operating largely away from public scrutiny.

Given all of these structural issues, academy supporters have long argued that we should be pragmatic: decision-making structures do not matter so long as pupils are getting a good education under these reformed institutions.

But evidence as to the positive impact of academies compared to other schools remains slight-going-on-nonexistent. This should prompt the public to take a longer, harder look at the dangers inherent in these major changes to the control of our publicly-funded schools.

The September edition of New Internationalist magazine, coming soon, explores education in-depth.