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FAQ: Opposing Academies and “Free” Schools

Mon, 26/03/2012 - 11:44

What are Academies?

The academy schools program began in 2000 under New Labour. They are state sector schools run independent of local authority control and with a private sponsor. Less than two ago, there were less than 300 academies in England, but the Academies Act 2010 sought to expand the number of academies and there are now over 1600. Some  schools that are deemed 'outstanding' by Ofsted have been ‘fast-tracked’. It is thought that many 'outstanding schools may not even need a sponsor, and might be able to opt straight out of local authority control regardless.

What do sponsors get?

Private sponsors put up an initial capital sum, up to £2mil and the state fits the bill for around another 90%. For this, the sponsor gets a say in the running of the school. They have a majority on the board of governors, dictate the ethos of the school, and have control over what the school building is used for. Often they have control of aspects of curriculum, the sorts of courses on offer and the kinds of outside agencies that come into schools. Academies are not obligated to recognise unions or follow national agreements over pay & conditions.

What sort of sponsors are out there?

Sponsors do not have to have a proven track record in education. Academies have been opened by Christian ‘philanthropist’ used-car salesmen like Peter Vardy’s Emmanuel Schools in the north-east, other Christian groups like United Learning Trust and Oasis Trust, and multi-national banks like United Bank of Switzerland, recent headline-grabbers for being the employers of the 3rd biggest 'rogue-trader' in financial history.

What do they mean for workers?

Because they can set their own pay & conditions, they open up the possibility of further eroding conditions for all education workers. They can increase staff workload through ignoring national assessment practices and having extended school days. The current government has already implied they will turn-down applications from schools that intend to stick to national agreements or recognise unions.

What are ‘Free’ Schools?

These are also independent schools in the state sector, planned to be set up by local parents, teachers and voluntary groups. They would also be free to set their own pay & conditions for workers, and it is suspected they will also require a private sponsor in practice. Of the 63 Free Schools already approved or planned for 2012-13, 23 are from existing schools, 2 are existing independent schools and 12 are being set up by faith groups, with many more being opened by charities that already run large 'chains' of academies; ARK, E-E-ACT, and the Harris Federation.

Do academies improve education?

No. The National Union of Teachers' report, 'Academies: beyond the spin', in 2007, found that many academies have high staff turnover and sickness figures, and also high pupil exclusion rates (in a bid to move on ‘problem’ pupils).
Academies have been said to ‘massage’ their 5 A-C grade figures (the benchmark by which schools are judged) by entering pupils for ‘equivalent’ courses such as BTECs, courses whose educational value is doubted by Ofqual, the independent educational standards monitor.
Recent DfES data shows that academies underperform non-academy schools on the government's own measures; namely the 5 A*-C grade figure. This discrepancy stands even when socio-economic figures are considered.
What is the social impact of academies?
Being controlled by a sponsor means the possibility of manipulating pupils with an ideological programme. The Emmanuel Schools Foundation was said to be openly teaching that the Earth is 6000 years old in its science lessons, and in 2006, Channel 4's 'Dispatches' found that teachers were immersed in a culture of 'bible-bashing' within the school. Other academies run by businesses and banks have an overt focus on ‘business-speak’, with many being business specialists or eschewing traditional subjects for business-related study.
Academies are free to select 10% of pupils by aptitude and have been accused of skewing the educational demographics of areas in which they operate.

The Fightback

Communities and workers are fighting back. In 2011 the 'Hands Off Bournville School' campaign in Birmingham  defeated governor plans to convert to an academy after a sustained struggle by parents and the threat of co-ordinated strike action by teachers in NUT and NASUWT.
In Kingsbury High School and Downhills Primary, both in London, as well as Montgomery Primary school in Birmingham have all been fighting academy conversions, with mixed results. But they are fighting. Struggles like this must be supported by workers in education and beyond. With academies growing exponentially we cannot underestimate how important the fight against them is.

Revolutionary change

The cuts and ‘austerity’ measures are hitting education hard. The attempts to increase private involvement in education and further erode pay & conditions, as well as educational standards, through programmes such as the academies scheme, highlights the need for complete abolition of the existing system. The call for radical overhaul in the education system, is a call for revolutionary change in society as a whole.
Until workers and communities are in charge of all industries, we will never have an education that truly liberates us and aids our quest for better and more meaningful lives. Education workers must resist attacks on their working conditions, and communities must fight the erosion and further manipulation of the education provision that should be liberating us, rather than churning out workplace fodder for the bosses.
We want education run BY and FOR working class people, to meet OUR needs, not the narrow ideological whims of capitalists, politicians or religious cranks. The EWN seeks to build a revolutionary union for education workers, with the ultimate goal being workers control of education, in our interests, not bosses, churches, or the state.

 



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