As mainstream politicians line up behind business driven schools, author Francis Beckett and teacher Alasdair Smith check the small print and discuss how to stop the schemes.
The frustration of writing a book about city academies is that scandals happen so fast. The whole scheme is so inherently grubby that, in the two months between finishing my book The Great City Academy Fraud and its publication last month, a dozen scandals happened to prove my point.
Did I say that the interests and wishes of the sponsor - normally a company or a religious organisation - took priority, and those of parents and local people were not considered? I did; and that was before we knew that admissions arrangements for the academy to replace Islington Green School had been changed to suit the sponsor. They were to be much the same as the existing school, so that those who lived nearest stood the best chance. But there was a change of sponsors. The new sponsors - City University and the Corporation of London - wanted to get in children from the City of London.
Of course they were given their wish, and Hackney children living a few hundred yards away were disadvantaged. Fortunately, this turned out to be illegal.
Did I say that commercial interests would override those of children? I did - and I didn't know that the £46.4 million Thomas Deacon city academy in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, is being built without a playground. This, apparently, will avoid having "uncontrollable" numbers of children running around in breaks.
As Liberal Democrat shadow education secretary Sarah Teather MP said, "These people cannot know anything about children. Any teacher, parent or childminder will tell you that keeping children indoors and preventing them from running around and letting off steam is a recipe for disaster. This does not sound like a school; it sounds like some nightmarish government exam factory."
What will the children do in their breaks? Simple. There won't be any. The head, Alan McMurdo, says they can drink water while they learn. Actually, what he said was, "[Pupils] will be able to hydrate during the learning experience." That's the way these people talk.
But I did know that Paddington Academy, whose sponsor is a Christian organisation, the United Learning Trust, had been so badly managed that, even with £50 million of new capital, children are still learning in a building site, which until recently had no phones, no ICT, no governing body and a huge deficit. I knew that loyal Labour MP Karen Buck removed her son from the school because it was not good enough for him. Why it is good enough for other people's children, she did not explain. Paddington Academy's website still says it's "a new academy offering exciting and innovative learning experiences to an entire community".
I knew much else besides. I knew that when Ofsted came to visit the West London Academy in July 2005, it found a mess. Exam results "were well below the national figures and those of schools in similar socio-economic circumstances" - in many subjects worse than those in the secondary school which the academy replaced. Most of the teachers were new, appointed by the academy rather than inherited from the predecessor school, yet teaching was "significantly weaker than the national profile". Attendance and punctuality were poor. The curriculum lacked "breadth and balance" with no coherent personal and social education, and no modern foreign languages.
"Inconsistency pervades the work of the academy," wrote the lead inspector, Boyd Gunnell. "The visit has raised serious concerns about the standard of education provided by the academy and I am recommending an early return visit."
I knew that sponsors had an inbuilt majority on the governing body and could do exactly as they like, but at the West London Academy, even though they had got rid of those meddlesome parent and staff representatives, governors could not manage to create systems which would allow them to chart the academy's progress.
I knew academies were excluding children wholesale, yet many of them still could not get order in their lessons.
Academies are a new sort of school. Most of them cost upwards of Â£25 million to build. Sponsors supply up to Â£2 million of that, and often significantly less. Cheapskate of the whole project is the Haberdashers Livery Company, which put in just Â£295,000 for its academy in Lewisham. It pays nothing at all towards the running costs. For that it gets absolute control of a school which you and I pay for, and to which we send our children, in perpetuity. It appoints the head. It dictates the curriculum, the management, the use of resources. It can name the school itself.
It has been likened to Victorian philanthropy, which provided such services as the poor got in terms of education, healthcare, and often even the most basic necessities of life. The rich looked at the desperate state of the poor in Victorian England, and, if they were not utterly without compassion, decided to use some of their wealth to help.
But this comparison is misleading. The sponsor can get all the things a 19th century philanthropist could get: control of how the money is spent, a "monument" to himself, the gratitude of the recipients. But unlike a 19th century philanthropist, he does not have to pay the cost of the thing he is "giving" - or even a substantial contribution towards the cost.
For in the city academy programme, the sponsors' money is practically irrelevant. The sponsor's £2 million is actually more like £1.2 million once the tax advantages are counted in. And if they all paid the full £2 million (most of them pay much less) then they would be putting in about £1 in every £25 that the programme will cost. Even that minimal contribution costs the government millions of pounds every year to obtain, in staff time at the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, development money for each academy, and splendid dinners at which the ears of wealthy people can be bent. To put it in commercial terms and business language, if you counted in everything it costs to leverage the money, it is doubtful if the academies programme even washes its face.
What makes an academy is not private money, but public money. And academies have brought no educational benefits that could not have been obtained simply by putting in the amount of public money that has gone in. Even those benefits are confined to the children who attend academies. There are 3,500 secondary schools in this country. How will putting £5 billion into 200 of them over the next five years help the pupils in all the rest?
Ken Muller reviews The Great City Academy Fraud in this issue.
Teaching Labour a Lesson in Education
In a shameless attempt to promote his legacy in November last year, Tony Blair chose to raise the target number of new academy schools from 200 to 400. The announcement was made in the wake of the National Audit Office report which Downing Street spun as proof of success, but which on closer reading reveals gross overspending, few gains in attainment and serious problems at some high profile academies.
Blair's determination to privatise education using academies and trust schools is part and parcel of the same policies that have seen the NHS and council housing subject to "marketisation" and sell offs.
There are 46 academy schools open today. Another 48 are planned for September 2007 and yet more for 2008. Blair and his lieutenant Lord Adonis have made no secret of their hatred of the "bog standard" comprehensive school. They have been desperate to proclaim the success of academies. Yet, as Francis Beckett and others have shown, academies are now deeply contested.
Fortunately, the academies programme has now begun to hit serious resistance. But this was not always the case. The first three academies opened in September 2002 with nine more opening in September 2003, five opening in September 2004 and another ten in September 2005. In most of these cases there was barely a whimper.
It was the dogged efforts of individual parents and teachers in key battlegrounds such as Islington and the Isle of Sheppey, and Bradford and Blythe that put "anti-academy" campaigns on the map, although the "cash for honours" and other scandals have helped.
These local struggles have been crucial to shifting the debate. Most campaigns have involved an alliance of parents, teachers and trade unionists. Local campaigning through public meetings, legal challenges, and publicity stunts (such as the present occupation in Brent) has been inventive and determined. And there have been some notable victories, in Doncaster and Lambeth for example.
But many campaigns have become a war of attrition. Unlike the ballots of tenants that are required to transfer council housing into private hands, there are no set piece democratic processes that allow academies to be contested. The fight takes place in consultation meetings that are invariably rigged by consultants or in school governing bodies where the local council and the DFES exert heavy pressure. So even where campaigners have been able to win the political argument against academies in their local community, they haven't always been able to change the policy.
For this reason the Anti Academies Alliance (AAA) - which links local campaigns across the country - has been working with trade unions, other groups such as CASE and some MPs to widen the debate at a national level. This led to Early Day Motion 605, tabled by Ken Purchase, MP for Wolverhampton North, raising the argument for a level playing field between academies and new community schools.
The support of the National Union of Teachers has been crucial. It was the first major union to affiliate, and has committed considerable resources to assisting the campaign. Other education unions including the NASUWT, ATL and UCU are also actively supporting it. And last month SERTUC agreed to urge all affiliated unions to support the AAA.
On 12 June MPs are hosting, in conjunction with the AAA, a Committee of Inquiry in the House of Commons. They are inviting any interested parties to give evidence in person or in writing. This will help concentrate efforts at a national level. The inquiry will produce a national report that aims to take the debate to party and trade union conferences, local authorities and governing bodies across the country, in much the same way that DCH has done.
In recent weeks there has been a significant increase in campaigning activity, with new local campaigns emerging in Oldham, Southampton and Wakefield. There have been a series of big, angry meetings in places such as Southwark, Pimlico and Norwich. It has become increasingly clear that the earlier local campaigns mobilise, the greater the chances of victory. This means that in every area every parent and every teacher needs to be vigilant.
Finally, it is not clear what Gordon Brown will do with the academy programme. He appeared with Blair at the Mossbourne Academy in Hackney just before the budget, but he made little commitment beyond regularising academies' tax status. Much of the speculation surrounds the future of Lord Adonis. He is the most hated figure on the Labour back benches so he is vulnerable. And Brown could convincingly argue for a moratorium on further academies while the costs are reviewed.
Perhaps prime minister Brown will see academies as an issue on which he can make a concession. But whatever happens we do know that vigorous campaigning at a local and national level remains vital to help turn the tide against academies, trusts and the wholesale privatisation of education.
The AAA has a new website: www.antiacademies.org.uk