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Academy schools: privatisation and two-tierism

Back in 2005, when it was announced that the ruling Lib Dem council announced it’s intentions to introduce City Academy schools in Islington, the IWCA sounded a note of caution for two reasons: firstly, as is well known, the track record of Academy schools is hit and miss (the private management of public services has never worked efficiently anywhere else, so why would education be any different?); and secondly, that if and when Academy schools do succeed, working class kids would struggle to get into them (link).

Sir Peter Lampl of the Sutton Trust has said that “The middle classes start with a huge advantage – an educational system that is socially selective. The richer you are, the better the school to which you send your children, whether private or state, specialist or non-specialist”. Similarly, Professor Stephen Ball of London University’s Institute of Education has said “Our education system has always provided the means for middle-class families to gain social advantage and to separate themselves off from ‘others’… Grammar schools, parental choice, ability grouping, faith schools, gifted and talented have all been a response to middle-class concerns”. Publicly, the Academy school initiative is intended to turn around failing schools in deprived areas. Our fear was that once the enormously resourced Academy schools began to bed in and start delivering results they would join this group of socially selective state schools alongside grammars, faith and voluntary aided schools, and end up being largely populated by the offspring of middle class parents who don’t want their kids going to school alongside working class children (see previous IWCA article ‘The re-creation of the Victorian class divide in education’).

It looks like our fear is beginning to become a reality. A recent report from the Sutton Trust listing the 100 most socially selective schools in England included two Academies (http://www.suttontrust.com/reports/GrammarsReviewSummary.pdf). Recent research by the Daily Telegraph, which showed that many Academy schools were among the most heavily oversubscribed in the country prompted Alan Smithers, professor of education at Buckingham University, to comment that “Academies and voluntary-aided schools control their own admissions in a variety of ways and because they are popular, are able to take their pick of the population” (Successful schools hugely oversubscribed, figures show – Telegraph). And last week, the Guardian reported the preliminary findings of a study of Academy schools by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, stating that “results have improved markedly but that the proportion of pupils they take from the poorest homes has shrunk… Separate figures revealed today show the scale of the drop in the number of pupils on free school meals in academies. In 2003, 45% of academy pupils were eligible, compared with 29% at the beginning of this term” (Academies accused of covert selection as number of poorer pupils falls | Education | The Guardian).

It’s also noticeable that Academy schools seem to be disproportionately concentrated in Greater London (42 out of 131 nationwide according to the most recent DFES list, not to mention a further 14 in the wider South East and 8 more in Bristol [link]), where there is an almost psychopathic need among middle class parents who can’t afford to go private to get little Tom or Chloe into a ‘good state school’. Rather than ‘turning around failing schools in deprived areas’, it starts to look like that what lies behind the Academy initiative are i) privatisation, and ii) furthering the ‘two-tierism’ of the state education system. 

As a coda to this story, almost as soon as the IWCA intervened on the Academy issue in Islington in 2005 (the year before the local elections), the Lib Dems mysteriously abandoned their plan to incorporate Moreland primary school, located in the IWCA bailiwick of Finsbury, into the proposed Academy at Islington Green. Subsequently, we helped uncover the fact that the government adjudicator who was supposed to decide on whether another Islington school, St Mary Magdalene, was going to be turned into an academy (against the wishes of the parents) worked for a private education firm, GEMS, which in turn owned the firm that was due to design the new Academy, and which also carried out the Mary Magdalene consultation (Academy in conflict of interest row | UK news | The Guardian).

Since the furore all this created, the Lib Dems have not dared push another Academy in Islington, in contrast to neighbouring Hackney where there are now four. The moral of the story is: if you let the powers that be walk all over you, that’s exactly what they’ll do; but if you’re prepared to stand your ground, they can be stopped in their tracks.

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