Knowing my daughter’s education was beyond my control felt odd when she first started in reception. After two years I’m used to that – most of the time. Apart from when she has to read an eye-wateringly dull book; or when I ask ‘what did you do at school today?’ – ‘I can’t remember. Nothing can I have a snack?’
Who is in control? It’s complicated. First Blair’s government – in 2002 – then Gove – in 2010 – with the introduction of academies and free schools, altered everything. I will identify who pulls which strings and ask whether we want our children to be their puppets.
Teachers in maintained schools are weak. A teacher is constantly observed and managed, pressured to meet targets. Almost all the content at my daughter’s maintained school is set by those at the Department for Education who write the National Curriculum, though teachers work late at home and on weekends to prepare their own resources. Boring reading books teachers dutifully issue exist because they are useful for measuring how near, or far, a child is from the Government’s ‘expected level’, not because the stories engender a love of reading.
How much power does a teacher at an academy or free school have? Let’s look at how these institutions are run (the same rules apply to both). Academies, like private schools, don’t have to follow the National Curriculum. There are only some stipulations: “Academies must teach a broad and balanced curriculum including English, Maths and Science. They must also teach religious education.” (gov.co.uk).
Academies and free schools benefit from extra funding: up to ten percent more, which used to be held back by local authorities for provision of extra services (BBC, 2016). This is part of the reason for the explosion of academies in recent years: “At January 2017, 68.8 per cent of secondary pupils and 24.3 per cent of primary pupils in England were attending academies.” (House of Commons Library, 2017).
The Government describes academies as “publicly funded independent schools.” (gov.co.uk). The structure of their governance mimics that of a business. ‘Members’, at the top of the hierarchy, are like shareholders without the profit: “shareholders, like members, have a real interest in the success of a company…members will judge ‘success’ against how much the trustees are doing to achieve the charitable objects of the charity.” (National Governance Association, 2018). The government recommend there should be at least five members, but there can be as few as three, (RSA, 2017).
Beneath members are ‘trustees’ who run the academy, like school governors, though they have additional responsibilities, such as finance and admissions. The trustees are not supposed to be the same people as the members, but this does happen (Schoolsweek, 2017).
In multi-academy trusts, ‘local governing bodies’ are delegated responsibilities by trustees. LGBs can control one or more academies.
Overseeing all these academies, supposedly, are regional schools commissioners. Though, when they were set up to take over this responsibility from the Department for Education a leaked document revealed how little power they actually have: “ministers are advised that plans to devolve oversight to new regional schools commissioners will expose how little sway the department has over existing free schools and academy schools in England.” (Guardian, 2014).
In academies teachers work under an iron rod. The control exerted over teachers in maintained schools is frail by comparison! When a school becomes an academy, there is no longer the requirement for a teacher governor (or trustee in the new jargon) (NUT). Decisions are made by trustees who may have no experience, many of whom are appointed by the academy trust or its sponsors.
Academies do not have to honour statutory teachers’ pay and conditions. Teachers could have very little sick pay; they might be required to be in the building for long hours; even heads have been ‘ordered to leave’ with little warning, (Guardian, 2017). Respect for teachers, the acknowledgement that they care about their students and usually do more than their contracted hours, is gone.
In 2010 Gove rushed the Academies Bill through parliament using a procedure that some claim is usually reserved for anti-terror laws, (BBC, 2010). By 2016, nearly a third of the teachers who joined in 2010 had left; Schools cannot recruit enough teachers (NUT, quoting DfE figures). It isn’t surprising that so many teachers are desperate to escape.
The problem with academies is that they are extremely hierarchical – essentially mini-oligarchies. Members and trustees lay down the law and they are answerable to almost nobody; unless their school fails an Ofsted inspection, but by then damage has been done. Mary Bousted (General Secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers) commented this year: “Since 2010 the government has spent at least £149.6m on the setup costs and capital funding for 66 free schools, university technical colleges and studio schools in England that have either closed, partially closed or failed to open at all.” She suggests that the £149.6 million could have been better spent, (Guardian, 2018). (A salient point given the protest of hundreds of headteachers at Westminster on Friday, BBC, 2018.)
Academies have led to corruption. There have been several cases of members bending the rules for their own benefit: Ian Cleland, chief executive and founding member of the Academies Transformation Trust, oversaw the disappearance of millions from the trust’s reserves over four years, was put on temporary leave, then used his powers to sack the chairman and have himself re-instated, (Schoolsweek, 2017).
I am an escapee. I have worked in both a free school and a recently converted academy. In the free school, I was conscious of the incompetence of trustees. They didn’t think there needed to be a head of English, so I began with no scheme of work. The experienced head could influence decisions, but was ultimately subordinate to trustees and members.
There is some hope in co-operative schools. Championed at one stage by Conservative, Francis Maude, and now Angela Rayner in her speech last week at Labour Party Conference: “And where parents and staff want to go further in launching and leading their own schools, our own movement already has an answer: co-operative schools.” (Labour.org.uk, 2018). Co-operatives provide a way for teachers and parents to take more control of schools.
Mervyn Wilson (Principal of the Co-operative College) wrote one of four essays in a collection commissioned in 2013 on the subject: “Today’s generation of co-operative schools…provide opportunities for new models of ownership involvement and community engagement, and an alternative to the rapid development of the top-down command and control chains.” (Making it Mutual, 2013).
Greater involvement of teachers in running schools is badly needed. Maybe a new kind of management would help teachers dread Moanday less. If I were involved, I would have something to say about reading books.