Francis Beckett

Today’s report on academies, billed as a criticism, is actually an extended effort to rescue them from their abject failure to live up to the hype, and to disguise the dreadful damage they are doing to Britain’s school system.  The first clue is in its title: Unleashing Greatness.  “Unleashing” is a dreadful management jargon word, and only a management consultant would use it in front of an abstract noun, as though “greatness” was a large Alsatian dog.

The abuses it mentions are well known to teachers.  They have been going on ever since David Blunkett created the first academies at the beginning of the century, and much more widespread than the report suggests.  Many academies have covertly selected pupils for years in ways that the despised state schools which preceded them were not able to do, and then trumpeted improved results as though they were due to the academy idea unleashing dear old Greatness.  They have to abide by an admissions code, but everyone in the trade knows ways round it.  Others have been using their greater power to exclude pupils as a way of clearing out difficult children.

Comparisons with their predecessor schools, always trumpeted when these are favourable, are misleading.  Michael Gove’s favourite, Mossbourne Academy in Hackney, is the successor school to Hackney Downs only in the sense that if you park your car in a space previously occupied by my car, mycar is you car’s predecessor.

We know that some of the big chains which make a living by taking on academies are focussed on expanding their empires, rather than improving their existing schools.  Academies, and the money that goes with them, have proved a godsend to the owners of struggling chains of fee-charging schools.  The United Learning Trust, for example, is a subsidiary of the United Church Schools Trust, which runs a string of fee-charging schools.  It controls its schools tightly from the centre, leaving local heads so little authority that they cannot even speak to the press without authorisation from head office.

But while the report tells you what many academies do, it doesn’t tell you what the academy system does.  It removes all power over schools from local people, and places it in the hands of a central organisation, often a religious one with an agenda of getting them young.  (They don’t put it like that, of course.  They talk about creating Christian communities, and instilling Christian values.)

By using their power to select covertly, academies promote the creation of two classes of school: the “good” schools, the academies, and the sink schools, run by the local authority.  Give academies another couple of decades, and we will have revived the long-discredited secondary moderns.

Third, and in the long run most serious, they will destroy the central provision of the 1944 Education Act, that every child has the right to a school place.  The Act places a duty on local authorities to provide a place.  That was fine when local authorities had the power to do so, but the more schools which are their own admissions authorities – as academies are – the less chance the local authority has.

Academies are the result of a philosophy which has dominated the thinking of successive governments ever since Kenneth Baker was Education Secretary in the early eighties, which is that there is nothing the public sector can do that the private sector can’t do better, and the more local authorities were kicked around and stripped of power, the better things would be.  That’s the thread connecting Baker’s City Technology Colleges, David Blunkett’s academies and Gove’s free schools.   New Labour was as convinced as the Conservatives – Blunkett had the sort of reverence for the private sector that marks out someone who knows nothing at all about it. The philosophy was wrong, and unleashing Greatness to snuffle around out schools and lay more turds in the playground will not make it right..