The Government’s objective to make all schools academies is in trouble.
Since the Government ditched the White Paper, which threatened to force all schools to become academies, the rapid growth in academy conversions has slowed significantly.
There has also be serious damage to the reputation of academy chains and multi-academy trusts (MATs), most notably at Wakefield City Academy Trust (WCAT), which announced in September last year that they no longer had the capacity to manage their 21 schools. WCAT were simply closing down their operation and abandoning the schools, their pupils and parents. Since there is no legal provision for academy schools to return to their local authority, the 21 schools would be reallocated to alternative MATs (in DfE language they would be “rebrokered”).
Parents, school staff and trade unions within WCAT were furious. They thought that most of the problems with WCAT are endemic to the academies system and not unique to one chain or MAT. In December, Wakefield City council (not an especially left-wing Labour body) voted to have the WCAT schools returned to the local authority and for a public enquiry into the financial management of the Trust. This is the first Labour council to take this step and is the result of energetic campaigning by unions and parents in the area.
In December, a Freedom of Information request revealed that, in fact, there were over 40,000 children in what Labour education spokesperson, Angela Rayner, called “zombie academies” — schools which had either been abandoned by, or taken from, their original academy sponsor. Unable to return to a local authority these schools and their pupils are awaiting reallocation to a new academy sponsor. There are 64 such schools, over half of which were part of two trusts, WCAT and the Education Fellowship Trust. The latter became the first MAT to abandon all of their 12 schools in March 2017. Schools in this position are often subject to strict conditions which stop them, for example, spending money on resources or appointing new staff.
A significant problem for the government and academy advocates is that few sponsors want to take over additional schools, particularly if those schools are more likely to depress than enhance the headline results for their new MAT.
There is no obligation on any academy sponsor to take over any other school, and yet there is no route back to the local authority. In the entirely plausible circumstance where a larger number of chains containing many more schools decide to close down, there would be a serious crisis in education provision.
There have been other less high profile signs that the academy programme is losing its grip. In late November 2017 the Bright Tribe Academy Trust announced that they would let go of Whitehaven Academy in Cumbria following complaints by teachers, parents and pupils that the school was in a dilapidated state.
Similar examples can be seen at Durand Academy, South London, and Sandown Academy on the Isle of White.
In Hackney, London, a survey of residents concluded that there was strong feeling that the “the council still should have a role in education.”
So far no mainstream political party has made a commitment to reverse the academy programme and return all schools to some kind of local democratic control, despite the escalating number of scandals and the lack of any evidence that academies improve school standards or outcomes for children.
In addition a 2017 Sutton Trust report concluded that “disadvantaged pupils in sponsored academies did less well than those in all mainstream schools”. Research by the National Education Union found that a child was more likely to be taught by an unqualified teacher and that their teacher was more likely to leave their job in an academy. The NEU also found that teachers are likely to be paid less in academies, while senior management are more likely to earn more than in local authority schools. The academy programme has offered the government little or no tangible gain for significant and now growing political embarrassment and criticism.
The public dialogue about academies now centres almost exclusively on financial scandal, excessive CEO and leadership pay, and abandoned children in “zombie schools”. School education is now an area ripe for a clear and popular response from one of the main parties.
Will any of them bite the bullet and deal with what is increasingly becoming a national scandal.
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