On 15 May, hundreds of school staff and supporters of the Hands Off Moulsecoomb Primary campaign marched through Brighton to protest against academy plans. The school was rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted inspectors in 2019, but further visits have shown that improvements are being made. In a council-run ballot in October 2020, 96% of parents voted for the school to stay under local authority control. There is also strong opposition to the academy plans by Brighton and Hove Green and Labour councillors, unions and the local community.
Academies are state schools that have been removed from local authority control and are funded by central government via academy trusts. They have been contentious from the outset and continue to court controversy.
Academies were first introduced into the English school system by the Labour government in the early 2000s to improve social mobility in deprived areas. The scheme was expanded by the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition from 2010. Schools deemed to be ‘failing’ by Ofsted inspectors were required to become academies, but schools judged ‘outstanding’ were also encouraged to become academies to “continue to drive up standards.”
Fast forward to today and 77% of secondary schools and 35% of primary schools are academies or free schools, according to latest government figures
Gavin Williamson has recently announced that he wants more schools to become academies and join multi-academy trusts (MATs), ending what he calls the “pick and mix” of school types. However, school leaders have expressed strong opposition to what they call “forced academisation” and argue that all schools need proper funding.
Critics of academies see them as “de facto privatisation” of schools. Christine Blower, former General Secretary of the National Education Union, saw their development as “about creating a market in education, not about school improvement,” though the government contests this.
Good for pupils … or not?
A key success measure would be if pupils, especially those in deprived areas, did better in academies than in local authority-run schools, but the picture so far is a very mixed one. An Education Policy Institute study reported “little difference in the performance of schools in academy chains and local authorities”, with each type of school featuring in the highest and lowest performing groups.
Primary school academies were “over-represented” in the bottom performing groups, with only one academy chain in the highest achieving groups. Secondary academies have done much better. A Sutton Trust report found “significant variation” in outcomes between academy chains (now known as trusts), with a small number achieving above average results, but a larger number falling below. In these, the educational prospects of low-income pupils could be seriously disadvantaged. So it is clear that being an academy is no guarantee of educational success, despite government claims.
Lack of accountability
A report by the London School of Economics (LSE) highlighted a large number of other issues. One of the biggest concerns is the lack of transparency and accountability in the way academy trusts are run compared to schools maintained by local authorities. This “opens the door to possible abuse of funds.”
While the government claims that academies have more financial control than local authority schools, the LSE found that schools in academy trusts had less autonomy. The LSE report also highlighted that academies do not have to follow national teachers’ pay and conditions – with a great increase in unqualified teachers – or the national curriculum, which may reduce opportunities for pupils, especially in disadvantaged areas.
Although technically ‘not-for-profit’, an ongoing criticism of academies has been the “eye-watering” salaries paid to Chief Executives from public funds, averaging £236,000 in the 20 biggest academy trusts.
Phil Kemp, president of the NASUWT teaching union, called this “obscene” and likened the “worst excesses” of this deregulated system to the “Wild West.” Even the government has been trying to curtail these “excessive salaries”, by asking 94 academy trusts to provide justification for them.
There have also been worrying accusations of “dubious financial activities”, such as those alleged in a 2018 BBC Panorama investigation. Following the programme, Labour’s Angela Rayner demanded an “urgent inquiry” into academy regulation.
Trusts too often falling short
The Department of Education responded that “95% of trusts had no issues,” and the two academy trusts focused on by Panorama have since been disbanded. Despite this, a 2018 parliamentary Committee of Public Accounts found that “too often academy trusts are falling short” of the “highest standards of governance, accountability and financial management” and recommended tightening procedures.
Most recently, the academies’ watchdog Education and Skills Funding Agency confirmed that £5.6 million had been lost to fraud in 2019-20 and that 19 active fraud investigations into academy trusts were underway. There are clearly still serious questions to ask about the accountability of academy trust finances and regulation.
“It would be so devastating for the community to lose the school. The last thing we want is for the school to be taken over by an academy. We will keep fighting to make them walk away.” (Samantha Ide, Moulsecoomb parent)
Despite huge opposition to the academy plans, the Pioneer Academy chain is due to take over Moulsecoomb Primary soon. School supporters were angered to hear that one of the inspectors who originally failed the school, Tim Rome, is Pioneer’s regional director. Brighton and Hove Greens and Baroness Jenny Jones, who went to the school herself in the 1950s, argue that the Pioneer Trust is unsuitable because it is not locally based and does not prioritise addressing disadvantage.
Labour councillors have urged the trust to withdraw, and local Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle has pledged to help parents remove their children from the school if the academy plans go ahead. So the local fight is far from over and the controversy around academies looks set to continue.
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