Oxford is united against academy schools

Education Secretary Michael Gove

Coming to write a piece on the Oxford Against Academies campaign, I felt no small twinge of nostalgia. It was a little over a year ago that an unwarrantedly-mundane letter from my old sixth form, Holland Park School printed on an innocuous piece of crisp creamy A4 announced they were ‘considering’ the change. Then, as now, I opposed it, both on ideological grounds and on simple democratic ones. The campaign reached the Kensington and Chelsea Chronicle, and then the Guardian, yet as far as I am aware, no proper consultation on the issue was ever held, and academy plans continue to progress at breakneck speed. Over a thousand schools were manoeuvred towards applying for academy status in the first year alone, with more to come. There has been no time for proper consultation in almost all the cases, no testbed, no chance to collect any real hard data of the long-term impacts on the future of education- it has been a flat-out hurtle towards the precipice and the cracks are showing ever more visibly by the week. ‘I would like to reassure you that we have no reason to believe that academies will not provide healthy, balanced meals that meet the current nutritional standards’, said Michael Gove to culinary warrior Jamie Oliver last year. Since then, the School Food Trust identified a hundred academies that have in fact flagrantly ignored nutrition guidelines. Yet this is just scratching the surface. The old system may not be perfect, but at the very least it provides some level of democracy and co-ordination. There is a legal requirement that teachers (and in sixth form colleges, students) have elective representation on governing boards. Schools can co-operate and plan across regions. Academisation strips this away and removes any requirement for a governing board to be composed of elected representatives who can be challenged by ballot and reflect the stakeholders in a school system. And yet this has been sold to us as the kitsch-communitarian image of a coalition of parents deciding to set up their own school free from the nasty overbearing government- a coalition that incidentally includes creationists wanting to set up a ‘free school’! The fact is, this mythical coalition of the well-meaning needs to get its money from somewhere (for despite the myths, not a single penny of extra money comes from the government for academies which isn’t appropriated from other parts of the education system)- and that places is the private sector. Private provision of school services and the creation thereby of a market in schools, of the ethic of competition, is therefore to be allowed to become the norm.

In 2001, US academy chain Edison saw its shares collapse, and solved the problem through the sale of computers and art equipment in their schools. They are now being permitted to run academies in Britain. Then there is the Swedish firm that claims to offer the ‘McDonald’s model of education’- and to boot, the entire Swedish example, whereby Swedish national agency Skolverket report a decline in educational standards since academisation, and education minister Per Thulberg names competition as the direct cause of this decline. Based on precedent, there is absolutely no proof that academies work, significant evidence that they don’t, and so there can be only one reason why the Coalition are so desperate to gamble with the development of our children- the old bugbear of profitability. It is no coincidence that key academy sponsors such as Toby Young, who I interviewed at the opening of his pet West London Free School last year amid an explosion of triumphalism, or Katie Price, or Lord Fink, are either very wealthy, or Tory donors, or both. These are the people who stand to gain from academisation- the managers, the bureaucrats, and the plutocrats. The National Governors Association, National Association of Head Teachers, National Grammar Schools Association, the Catholic Church, and the Church of England have all raised major concerns with the Academies proposals.

This is the context in which I  interviewed Jordan Hearne, a sixth form graduate at the Matthew Arnold school in Oxford, a high achieving, 1300-student state comprehensive school and sixth form. I could almost be talking about Holland Park again. Back then, I was keen to raise the democracy issue- regardless of my own views; I believed the decision should be put to a school-wide ballot. Hearne approaches the issue this way as well, through a lens of democracy and accountability. ‘The biggest issue is accountability’, says Hearne. ‘My school has built a fantastic reputation for being inclusive of student, parent and staff voice. In my own role as Head Boy I devoted a serious amount of time to reforming the ways in which we listen to what students want to see in their education as well as what the community thinks the school could give to them. Becoming an academy means the school is no longer accountable to the local authority…becoming an academy depletes this local level of accountability and instead, through funding agreements, makes national government responsible for the school – what a nightmare! I would much rather have a local authority, with a greater understanding for local issues and context, helping parents hold my school to account as opposed to national government holding every school to account- itself is accountable to the community through local elections which places them as the most suitable body to do the job.’

His next concerns are economic. He adds, ‘this is the future generation of leaders and workers that we are educating in these schools and we should never forget that. Academy status compromises a school’s focus on providing outstanding learning and instead throws extra budgeting burdens onto school leadership. An academy leadership team no longer has the education of children as their most important focus, instead they must balance the education of children with the burden of remaining financially stable. There are also several other troubling issues which I would encourage everyone to find out more about, but one of these is the ability it gives a governing body to alter the terms of work of teachers (including regional pay through the back door); which is why most teachers quite rightly oppose the change.’ This is an issue which has thrown Hearne into activism. Beyond participating in a campaign for the incumbent Labour MP for Oxford at the last election, he has never been involved on social activism on this scale. So what has his key focus been when helping to organise around the issue?

‘My main priority has been to try and raise awareness’, Hearne affirms. ‘I want parents, students and staff to have a clear idea of what the motivation for conversion is, as well as what the drawbacks are so that they can make an informed decision about their stance on the issue. I have been working to talk to as many school stakeholders as possible and it been a relief to know that other people share my concerns. The staff group at Matthew Arnold are mostly opposed to conversion, as are parents. It is also unfortunate for me to have to say that student voice on this important issue is being ignored. A school council meeting was held to discuss the possibility of conversion and it would appear as if some manipulation took place on the part of the leadership team – students were lied to which is not tolerable.’ The campaign has grown, and he adds that the local media has been quite receptive- ‘Radio Oxford, The Oxford Mail and Oxford Times have been kind enough to provide coverage for us which has been really helpful in promoting the devastating consequences of conversion.’

The vote comes before the governing body of the school in the autumn term, and of course Hearne and his colleagues want the governors to vote a resounding no, an outcome he describes as ‘a victory for student, staff and parent voice at the school.’ He acknowledges however that it could be ‘a very tight vote, especially as it would appear that only a simple majority will be needed to carry the motion of conversion. In my honest opinion this is not acceptable; conversion is a huge step to take and the risks of such a move are real – it is hard to escape the stories of good schools becoming academies and then being thrown over to private sponsors by the Tory-led coalition, or the stories of academies going bankrupt and having to be bailed out. The governing body could begin to show an understanding of the issue at hand by requiring more than just a simple majority to carry the motion. Let me be clear on this issue: if Matthew Arnold School’s governing body has any respect for parents, students and staff they will vote against conversion. The consultation period in which everyone overwhelmingly rejected conversion has clearly shown that the school body does not have a mandate to convert.’

So is his anti-academy activism party-political? Though a Labour supporter, he acknowledges the party’s role in it. Labour’s academies policy, he says, ‘was a huge mistake that represented a small step towards privatisation of the education system. Bad schools needed new leadership, better teaching and a cash injection (I am not suggesting it is this simplistic but these things go a long way in helping schools) among other things. In terms of the conversion of good schools – Labour opposes this. But clearly not strongly enough; The Labour group on Oxfordshire County Council are actually supporting the Tory-led stance on conversion of good schools. They are contradicting the national party and they are not standing up for good schools, like mine, which feel an enormous amount of pressure coming from the County Council. They must remember who they represent and start to stand up for good, local authority schools; their current position is not helpful at all.’

The Oxford Against Academies grouping has grown to include a wide layer of community activists. Bob Waugh, a former lecturer in Education Studies at Oxford Brookes University, adds, ‘The education systems of all the affluent countries, including England, currently face fundamental questions in a time of global crisis. Turning schools into pseudo-businesses does not get near responding to any of them.’ Indeed, a Freedom of Information request recently revealed that the Oxfordshire-based Mouchel Group were recently paid nearly £500,000 by the state for project-managing three academy conversions. Of twenty Oxford schools that have applied for academy status (all listed between Satisfactory and Outstanding by the government’s schools watchdog, Ofsted), nineteen have had their applications approved, and thus far three are set to become part of large academy chains. Alasdair Smith, from the national Anti-Academies Alliance, adds the following. ‘I think the main thing to realise is that academies are about the privatisation of education; for all the myths Michael Gove promulgates about social justice, it remains privatisation. The campaigners on the ground in Oxford are doing a fantastic job in raising this issue among others.’ There is talk of them linking up with the national alliance, with schools such as Downhills Primary in London, whose staff have been on strike against academy plans, or local authorities such as Birmingham and Coventry’s, that have rejected academisation wholesale. When I was administrating the Holland Park campaign, I thought that London’s flagship state comprehensive and Seventies liberal paradise might become a central piece in the movement. Perhaps instead the city that houses the Dreaming Spires will become the focal point of a last-ditch battle to save the integrity of our education system.

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