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At last our schools will be “set free” by George Osborne. They’ll be “free from local bureaucracy”, no longer run by councils but governed instead by academies, such as the one set up by carpet millionaire Lord Harris. It seems incredible that up until now, no one has taken the obvious step of handing over our entire education system to carpet millionaires….

Once a school becomes an academy, it’s free to run as it pleases, setting rates of pay, employing non-qualified teachers or – as some academies have proposed – inviting businesses such as Apple to set up a store inside the school. This makes a school truly free, because instead of being stifled by a local council, your child’s life will be controlled by a kindly, multinational, predatory global corporation.

And there’s never a hint of bureaucracy with Apple, who sometimes wait as long as four days before bringing out a new model with new sockets that render everything you bought last week obsolete and useless. That’s because they care. [The Independent]

I am angry. This is a rant.

It concerns education and free market economics. It is a long piece. Be warned. I hope it serves as a good reference guide when discussing this topical issue concerning the deconstruction of the UK education system.

Let me give you some preamble, especially for the majority of US readers I have. The UK education system is the most fragmented system in the world. These are (not all of) the different schools we have:

  • Non-denominational state schools
  • voluntary-aided faith schools
  • voluntary-controlled faith schools
  • academy schools
  • free schools
  • grant-maintained schools
  • foundation schools
  • independent schools (faith and non-denominational)

This is insane, confusing and provides for an unnecessarily piecemeal system. Surely there are best practices for running schools? Trying to run an education system that is so unbelievably fragmented is counterproductive to quality teaching and learning provision. As Ron Glatter states:

…if there is a wide diversity of contractors, many of them small and including numerous stand-alone schools, the risk of great variability in quality is increased. The system becomes highly fragmented, and international evidence shows that this is not an effective strategy for whole-system improvement.

So, in that list are academies and free schools. Let me explain. Traditionally, since 1902, schools have been run by Local (Education) Authorities (LAs). Essentially, county councils and unitary councils run education services themselves, taking money from central government, and running schools whilst supporting them with training (for teaching, financial management health & safety, governor training etc.) using resources and expertise set up over decades. Admittedly, some authorities have done this better than others. Some like my own Hampshire, are quite simply superb.

The Conservatives, with their right-wing ideology, favour free market economics and small government. They have been hellbent on reducing local government and injecting free market economics into the education system (as well as the health system, probation services and many other sectors). Rather than pay the middle men of local government to run schools, they envisage paying all schools directly so that they can run themselves, and supposedly better. This, apparently, will save money and drive up standards.

It all actually started with the Labour government who felt they had tried everything to reverse the fortunes of certain failing schools and created the very small academy system to try to turn around certain such schools. They are probably kicking themselves for doing so now, since the Tories have taken that two steps further, and explided it exponentially. They took the failing schools model and offered it to all schools voluntarily, opening up academy status by bribing schools with a load of money to convert – to leave the LA’s – and to start up on their own, or in corporate chains of schools. Essentially, these trusts of multilpe academies are run like companies (technically, academy trusts, which appear to operate not dissimilarly to such). This all sounds rather…corporate. This was voluntary andmainly involved secondary schools since they have much larger budgets. Essentially, they were sold on the money. Now, in the government’s annual budget, a few days ago, the government announced that this policy will be forced upon all other schools. That is to say all outstanding and good schools (which comprise a large 80% chunk of LA schools) will be forced to academise. To leave LA support and join a corporate chain. The government is privatising our education system, and it is no longer subtle.

Free schools are even more free market – anyone can set up a school (parents, companies, randoms), submit an application to the government, and if successful, hey presto, run a school to educate children. To find out more about them, see here.

What are the pros and cons of academisation?

The pros of academisation are actually the cons – it just depends which way you look at it. Scarily, SchoolsWeek has just found out that schools may have to cover the cost of their own conversions!

nicky morgan

Evidence (or not) for Diving up Standards

As the tongue in cheek Independent muses:

Academies, it is claimed, produce higher exam results, but schools that have been compelled to become academies have a worse record than schools that have remained as part of the local authority. More than 1,000 teachers working at the Harris chain of schools left within three years, resulting in some students being left for entire lessons without teachers, even in their GCSE years. This shows how far the Government is committed to its brave, hippie vision of setting kids free from bureaucracy.

The most controversial aspect of the whole thing is the lack of evidence that academisation does the very thing that it is supposedly in existence to do – drive up standards. The claim, I posit, that it does so (by the Conservatives) is merely to make it look attractive and hide the ideological drivers that underpin the whole enterprise.

The results are at best inconclusive that academisation does anything to standards. Rebranding a school and changing its financial and political status does not lead to better teaching and learning. In 2015 an inquiry into academies concluded on some pretty awkward findings for the government:

A parliamentary inquiry into the coalition’s education reforms has called on the government to stop exaggerating the success of academies and to be more open about how it runs the programme.

The report by the cross-party education select committee said that although it was clear that academisation led to greater competition which helped drive improvement in schools, there was not yet proof that academies raised standards either for disadvantaged children or overall.

It made a series of recommendations to address concerns about conflicts of interest in governance, lack of transparency, inadequate oversight and the dangers of rapid conversion of secondary schools. And in response to a long-running battle between the Department for Education and Ofsted, it called for Ofsted to be given full powers to inspect academy chains.

The publication of the report coincided with a hearing by the public accounts select committee that highlighted the complex arrangements surrounding academies….

“Current evidence does not prove that academies raise standards overall or for disadvantaged children. It is clear though that academisation has led to greater competition, challenging many maintained schools to improve and incentivising local authorities to develop speedier and more effective interventions in underperforming schools.

“Going forward, the DfE should be less defensive and more open about its implementation of the academies programme, producing a range of clearer and deeper information about the performance of academy schools, chains and sponsors.”

In fact, it’s worse than that. Michael Wilshaw, head of the schools’ inspectorate, OFSTED, was until recently the darling of the Tory government – their lapdog in all the educational changes. Not so anymore, it seems.

Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw has claimed today that multi-academy trusts have “manifested the same weaknesses” as the worst-performing local authorities and “offered the same excuses”.

In an explosive letter to education secretary Nicky Morgan today, Sir Michael said he has “great concern” about the performance of seven large multi-academy trusts (MAT) that were inspected by Ofsted.

He said the findings of the focused inspections were “worrying” and highlighted “serious weaknesses”. Trusts named in the letter included E-ACT, School Partnership Trust Academies (SPTA) and Academies Enterprise Trust – the country’s largest MAT with 67 schools….

Sir Michael said: “There has been much criticism in the past of local authorities failing to take swift action with struggling schools.

“Given the impetus of the academies programme to bring about rapid improvement, it is of great concern that we are not seeing this in these seven MATs and that, in some cases, we have even seen decline.”

He said many of the inspected trusts were failing their poorest children – despite the academies movement initially being established to improve the performance of disadvantaged pupils.

AET and SPTA were highlighted, citing a gap of 25 percentage point gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers at level 4 and above. The national average is 17 percentage points.

From what I heard on BBC Newsnight and Question Time last night, there are only three academy chains operating at desired improved standards, and they are all in London. That is damning. And yet this system is being undemocratically forced upon us. I say this because a) no one really wants this (Jonathan Dimbleby, host of Question Time asked the audience last night who supported it, and two people put their hands up) and b) the Tories have a pretty poor mandate (only 37% of the electorate voted for them, and they have 51% of the MPs – but that’s another story). No one in government has consulted or the electorate whether they want this system.

The Guardian reported, in 2015, the further lack of evidence, and in fact contrary evidence, for academies raising standards:

Similarly, the National Foundation for Educational Research found that “no significant improvement is seen in the rate of improvement of GCSE results for academy schools over and above the rate of improvement in all schools”. The Department for Education itself, in a high court case last summer, argued only for “marginally higher” achievement for academies rather than the dramatic results that Morgan is claiming.

Our own analysis at the Local Schools Network has consistently shown that when schools are converted to academies their improvement is no better than similar local authority schools. Indeed, in last year’s GCSE figures, the results of sponsored academies consistently fell more than the results of non-academies.

After Ofsted inspections carried out since conversion, 8% of primary sponsored academies, and 14% of secondaries, are currently rated “inadequate”. It is not clear what the government’s solution is for children in these schools in special measures. The evidence would suggest the best solution might be to hand them back to local authorities, but this is unlikely to happen under this government.

When Morgan talks of bringing in “education experts”, she is referring to the academy chains that now dominate the government’s approach to education. Far from knowing exactly how to make a school outstanding, most underperform compared to local authorities. The Department for Education’s own analysis found that, of the top 20 chains, only three had performances, in terms of value added, that were above the national average.

Ofsted is not allowed to directly inspect chains, as it does with local authorities, but has carried out mass inspections of the schools in specific chains. This has resulted in highly critical conclusions on several chains. In two of the largest chains, at least half of the schools were rated “requires improvement” or “inadequate”.

I find it shocking that on this lack of evidence, and on this contrary evidence, the government is embarking upon an ideological crusade. If you want evidence-based policy making, this government is not for you.

Curriculum and Freedoms, …and Religion

Academies are supposed to be free from bureaucracy (as contested below), but it turns out that schools under LAs really do have meaningful freedoms. They just don’t use those freedoms. I have worked in state schools for over a decade and I am not really sure what freedoms these schools think that they want, unless it is to get away with paying people less and so on.

One major worry for secularists like myself is the nature of the applicants for free schools and who runs academy chains. The BHA reported in 2013:

A majority of Free School proposals where the British Humanist Association (BHA) have been able to identify whether or not they were faith-based have come from religious or pseudoscientific groups. In total, over the first three years of the Free Schools programme there were 831 proposals to establish Free Schools. The BHA has been able to identify whether or not 659 of these were religious or otherwise pseudoscientific, and has found that 330 (50.1%) were faith-based (or at least 40% of all 831).

This is a worry because this is higher than the existing proportion of faith schools. More recently last month they reported:

In total there were 42 proposals for Free Schools submitted during the tenth ‘wave’, 17 of which were for ‘faith’ schools. These include the five ‘faith’ schools that received approval – two Christian schools and three Muslim schools – and 17 others. The remaining 12 applications from faith groups that weren’t successful included nine proposed Muslim schools, two proposed Christian schools, and one proposed Sikh school.

Alarmingly, of the ‘faith’ school applications that failed to receive approval, six have been ‘paused’, meaning the applications are likely to be picked up again during a future ‘wave’, and three were withdrawn. Disregarding these applications, the DfE therefore only refused permission to just three ‘faith’ school proposals out of eight, adding further credence to the fears that a significant proportion of the 500 Free Schools that the Government plans to open by 2020 will be ‘faith’ schools.

Back in 2012, BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson reported on free schools exploiting loopholes to teach Creationism. The system is far more open to abuse than LA governed systems.

On the curriculum side, and putting aside the religious nature of the curricula that can be promoted and provided by such schools, the idea that the government works so hard to provide an idea of the best curriculum that can be developed only to allow schools to opt out is, well, nonsensical. Academies do not have to follow the National Curriculum. I am not sure what is so national and curriculum about it if most secondary schools presently do not have to follow it, and soon enough all schools…

Pay and Staff

Schools, as academies (and free schools), can pay teachers what they like, and can teach what they like. They have far more control over the curriculum, what they do on a day to day basis, and what teachers they have. Indeed, there is no requirement for free school and academy teachers to be qualified. They need have no teacher qualification.

There is the common argument that academies stop LAs topslicing finances off from the central government funds. This is hilarious given the recent revelations about fat-cat pay for corporate multi-academy trust executives:

Wow. So in attempting to make the whole scheme cost effective, it looks like a move towards big banking corporation employment deals! Is the Conservative government revealing their true colours?

Indeed, there are countless shocking example of this, including this one just in the news now (“Perry Beeches Trust condemned for ‘paying superhead Liam Nolan a £160,000 second salary’“):

A Birmingham academy Trust paid nearly £1.3 million to a business which then paid a “second salary” to superhead Liam Nolan, an inquiry has found.

Perry Beeches The Academy Trust has been ordered to improve the way it manages its finances – or face the potential loss of its funding.

It follows an inquiry into payments to high-profile superhead Liam Nolan.

The trust, which has been praised by Prime Minister David Cameron, runs Perry Beeches The Academy and four other secondaries, named Perry Beeches II, III, IV and V.

Mr Nolan is one of three executive headteachers at the Trust, and is also the trust’s Accounting Officer and Chief Executive. He receives a salary of £120,000 directly from the Trust.

But the Education Funding Agency, which oversees education spending for the Government, launched an investigation after it received claims from a whistleblower that what it calls “an additional second salary” was paid to Mr Nolan.

It has published a report saying that it discovered the trust had made payments of £1.297 million over two years to a business called Nexus Schools Ltd, which in return provides a range of services to the trust – including the services of its chief executive (CEO), Mr Nolan.

Michael Wilshaw is not happy about this state of affairs:

He then attacked the pay of trust chief executives, saying “some do not appear to be commensurate with the level of performance of their trusts or constituent academies”.

He said the average pay of the seven trusts’ chiefs was higher than that of the prime minister’s £140,000.

Trusts are also holding “very large cash reserves”, Sir Michael said, totalling £111 million as of August last year. He added some are spending money on expensive consultants – at least £8.5 million in 2014/15 alone.

Sir Michael took a final swipe over the geographic spread of schools in some academies, adding: “It is clear that, with such a vast spread of diverse provision, these particular trusts are still struggling to monitor performance effectively.”

He added: “If we are to improve national standards in an increasingly autonomous system, much more needs to be done to reduce the variation in standards between the best and worst academy trusts.”

Another reason that the government is keen on this is that it will break the unionisation of the profession. With a more free market approach and academies effectively being run with corporate ideology, teachers will be less unionised, and certainly less likely to strike given employment issues. In fact, teachers will no longer have beef with the Department for Education, because they are effectively offloading education to multi-academy trusts. This is another ideological attack on the profession.


Academies are their own admissions authority. Literally, this is what is set out by the government:

Academies are their own admissions authority and must meet all the mandatory provisions of the School Admissions Code (the code) that came into force on 19 December 2014 except where variations have been written into their funding agreement to support fair access.

Comprehensive schooling is a thing of the past, and selective schooling appears to be the way of the future. The Independent reported in January 2016:

Academies are turning away children with special needs in order to “cherry-pick” pupils who are likely to get the best results, the head of a leading charity has warned.

Anna Feuchtwang, of the National Children’s Bureau, told The Independent the charity had heard repeated reports of children with special educational needs being rejected by academies because they did not have an education, health and care plan….

Ms Feuchtwang said: “We have anecdotal evidence that academies are more reluctant to accept children with special education needs unless they have an education and health and care plan already in place. We would be really worried about that continuing: you would end up having free schools and academies able to cherry-pick the children who are likely to provide the best results, rather than being inclusive.”

A leading disability campaigner echoed Ms Feuchtwang’s concerns. Richard Rieser of World of Inclusion, which provides training on implementing disability legislation, said: “I have heard lots of anecdotal stories of people with special needs being turned away [from academies].”

He said figures showed that converter academies – schools that opted to become academies – took in a lower proportion of special needs pupils (14 per cent) than those schools that were forced to become academies because they were in trying circumstances (17 per cent).

There are also concerns that academies were more likely to exclude pupils than local authority maintained schools, and that those excluded were likely to have special needs.

The Academies Commission found, as the Guardian reported:

…that, with the move to academy status making many more schools effectively their own admissions authority, the system was becoming unacceptably complex for parents to navigate. This had serious implications for genuine parental choice, social justice and system-wide improvement.

Coherence and Contracts

It turns out that in attempting to run the education on free market principles, that a contradiction occurs. All schools are now singularly answerable to the Education Secretary. In a strange way, the government has centralised the education system more overtly than imaginable!

As Glatter states (bearing in mind this was two years ago before all the present moves):

Above all, there is a monumental challenge in managing such a large number of contracts from the centre, or anywhere else. Several high-profile failures, such as that at Al-Madinah free school in Derby, have vividly illustrated the risks. The government seems at last to have recognised this with its plan to regionalise the process based on eight commissioners and headteacher boards.

But such a system will scarcely make the task any easier; it will create a raft of new bureaucracies and continue to block local input. The plan to manage more than 20,000 schools [now far, far more] by contract is unsustainable, and the sooner that is accepted the better – not doing so will leave the system in a complete mess, rife with division and artificial distinctions….

We need an inclusive, integrated and coherent set of arrangements which avoids political favouritism and unjustified status hierarchies. The most successful educational systems, combining high quality with equity, have such arrangements at their heart. If we could develop this, future generations would at least be able to look back at us with less bemusement.

Back in 2013, the National Audit Office’s report into the academies programme stated that 47 per cent of academies responding to their survey felt less free from bureaucracy than they had expected to be (and I think that number might now be higher)! Headteachers are claiming that the whole system is fragmented and unclear.

What is happening is that multi-academy trusts are becoming a version of the very thing the Tories are trying to get rid of – large organisations of schools supported by single providers. They are looking like the very LAs they are seeking to replace, but with worse problems.

Sometimes you see this argument as a pro: Opportunity to expand our mix of partnership arrangements to achieve economies of scale when sharing resources or joint purchasing. But that’s exactly what LAs provide themselves, through purchasing power, and contracts and SLAs! You also hear this: Potential to share best practice, staff and leadership development opportunities across a group of schools. But that’s exactly what LAs do with training and school partnerships and groups. I cannot believe this is given as a advantage. I have been involved in so many LA meetings where we swap best practice! Who thinks up these arguments? Where do they work?


Another way the academy system can fight bureaucracy is by paying consultants. For example, the Griffin Schools Trust paid £800,000 to an education consulting company, because it’s important to take advice on how to eliminate expensive bureaucracy. And to make absolutely certain the Griffin Schools Trust was receiving the best possible advice, £700,000 of the money was paid to a company owned by the same people that ran the Griffin Schools Trust. The money was apparently initially to repay work done by those people to set up the school and later in lieu of their salaries, but all the same, it’s best to take advice off someone you trust – and who do you trust better than yourself? You don’t get innovative measures like that taken in schools run by a stodgy old local authority. [The Independent]

Schools converting to academies are often heralded as examples of the success of academies, but there is the correlation fallacy at play here. If you bribe schools with vast sums of money to convert to academies, then no wonder they might do better. It is not the status and autonomy that enables this, but a healthy cheque.

The costs incurred by schools also often goes up, in a contradiction of the goals. In opting out of the LA support, schools find themselves without training, support and services. They have to adopt many more bureaucrats to manage contracts and finances, instead of outsourcing that to the capable LAs. Headteachers suddenly have to be business executives, and running a school stops being about teaching and learning. Ironically, the schools often end up buying back the services once provided under Service Level Agreements from the LAs at higher costs than originally provided for! What a farce.

As Michael Rosen states:

The accounts of ARK Academies state that “excess funds” are transferred to the Cayman Islands by a stockbroker which just happens to be owned by ARK owner Stanley Fink. According to ARK’s accounts, 60% of their funds are now held in the Cayman Islands where they are managed by yet another member of the ARK group, AMML. Fink says these are “underspends”, but surely there shouldn’t be an “underspend” in an education budget, or if there is why is this money not being returned to the taxpayer?

What appears to be equally problematic is the fact that academies are receiving land from the government, school land, and appear to be inclined to sell it off to make a huge profit and then use that in ways stated above. This is nothing short of shocking:

Rosen also claims:

At the school my nephew attends, for example, immediately it became an Academy last September a substantial chunk of the school grounds was sold to Sainsburys for a reported £21 million.

This asset-stripping is widely reported, where playing fields and other lands are sold off without any checks and oversight.

Practical Problems with Converting

Converting that many schools, by force, will be wholly problematic, as the BBC reports:

There are a few implementation issues here. The biggest of these is very simple –we do not have enough good academy chains as it is. There is plenty of demand for school support services at the moment and some existing school chains are extremely weak; Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector, has recently started to worry more about them.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: “It is hard to see how the government’s plans will work when there aren’t enough high quality multi-academy trusts to cope with thousands more schools and some trusts are performing as poorly as the worst local authorities according to Sir Michael Wilshaw.”

This proposal would also create a lot of work for the Department for Education, which has struggled with its existing workload. Since 2010, its role has gone from being a strategic body to deciding on rules for individual schools. The skills of its employees have not kept up.

Indeed, even the two most important things a Whitehall department must do, keeping to its budget and being accountable for spending, have proved beyond it. The free school programme showed that even the relatively simple task of opening new schools was extremely trying for them.

The Local Government Association, which represents the boroughs, has expressed concern about school accountability.

Roy Perry, chairman of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board, said: “It’s vital that we concentrate on the quality of education and a school’s ability to deliver the best results for children, rather than on the legal status of a school…

“The LGA opposes both forced academisation, and giving significant powers relating to education to unelected civil servants with parents and residents unable to hold them to account at the ballot box.”

And Now… Governors

I am a teacher in a non-denominational state school. I am also a parent governor in my twin boys’ non-denominational state school. The government have added to this complete mess with further messing. As the Guardian reports today:

Parent governors are to be dropped from all school governing bodies England in favour of professionals with the “right skills”, prompting warnings from unions that parents will be sidelined in the running of schools.

Until now, places have been reserved for elected parents on school governing bodies, but under plans outlined by education secretary Nicky Morgan in the white paper published on Thursday those roles will now be abolished….

Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: “Voices of parents, governors and the local community are being silenced by a government that does not believe in proper democratic accountability in our schools.”

I cannot believe that the government appear to undervalue parents and see them as separate from professionals. Amazing. Newsflash, most parents ARE professionals. They have jobs, you know. Parents aren’t separate entities from normal humans and don’t just give up living normal daily existences of working for their keep when they have children! Our parent governors at the school where I govern are entirely professional. Every one. They offer, as parents, a super range of skills to pull on. This all or nothing approach is utterly naive. Yes, push for more professional skillsets, but don’t go about it like this. Indeed. governors are in short supply. It’s a massive job, done voluntarily, and we cannot get enough governors, so to narrow the field is ridiculous.


There is so much more that I could have added. I find that this is an ideological drive, started by Michael Gove (an Education Secretary of ill repute), that seeks to shrink government whilst outsourcing services to separate corporate entities. Cynically, the government are abrogating responsibility for poorly-run and underperforming schools. This is a really interesting argument that I have only recently seen – that the government can hold their hands up and say “it’s not our fault” since schools will be the responsibility of multi-academy trusts. It’s a case of the ultimate slopey shoulders exercise allowing the blame to, in future, shift from the government to third parties.

This ideological shift seems to be lining the pockets of academy bosses, and for no good evidential reason. For me, the jury is in, and the project is found wanting, yet looks to escape unconvicted.

I think I have provided enough here to show that academies are a spurious idea at best, but I will leave you with this. I am governor at an OFSTED rated “outstanding” school. The headteacher is outstanding. The children enjoy, attain and thrive. Why fix what ain’t broke? Our school and headteacher will be forced to change for no good reason. The headteacher is angry. Very angry. This is wake-up-in-the-night stressful for the head. And this is a government railroading ideological, dogmatic policy regardless of evidence, regardless of what the public think and what the relevant experts in the relevant fields think.

It is a political crime, once insidious and creeping, now overt and bloody-minded. And there is something telling me, deep inside, that it will be irreversible if we don’t challenge it now. We must challenge it now.

The official government petition is here (at 100,000 signatures, this petition will be considered for debate in Parliament). Please sign it.

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...