The Labour Party must grasp the nettle in its approach to academies
The academy system was introduced to our schools under New Labour. Removing schools from the control of local authorities, it was initially meant for failing schools, as a last resort where all other strategies for improvement had failed. When Labour left office in 2010, there were only 200 academy schools in England, about 1% of all state schools. Under the Conservatives, the policy has accelerated and 80% of secondary schools and over 25% of primary schools are now academies. We have also seen the advent of Multi-Academy Trusts (MATS), groups of academies that dominate the education sector and wield immense power.
The Labour Party’s 2019 manifesto stated that the academy system was “over-centralised, inefficient and undemocratic” and promised to “end the fragmentation and marketisation of our school system by bringing free schools and academies back under control of the people who know them best – parents, teachers and local communities”. The sentiments expressed here are welcome but also too vague.
This reluctance to set out a clear policy comes from two competing pressures. On the one hand, the party membership and no doubt many MPs are increasingly uncomfortable about (or indeed in outright opposition to) how some academies and MATs operate. A quick google or conversation with teachers who have worked at some of the worst offenders will bring up stories of a lack of democratic accountability or oversight, opaque admissions processes, draconian behaviour policies, poor working conditions for teachers and support staff, hostility towards trade unions and, in some cases, evidence of financial corruption and nepotism, all of which are clearly at odds with Labour values. On the other hand, 4 out of every 5 secondary schools are now academies, with local authorities’ education departments currently in no position to run these schools.
The first step to developing a realistic and ethical approach to academies would be to put to bed the idea that a Labour government could, in a very short space of time, bring all academy schools back under local authority control. This is a fantasy. Equally, the Labour Party must accept both the strengths and the flaws of the academy system and develop robust policy accordingly. In the same way that local authority schools are not all good or all bad, many academies and MATs deliver a quality education and have a student body and a workforce that is happy and satisfied with the academy model. Indeed, headteachers and school governing boards across the country continue to apply for conversion to academy status for their schools, sometimes as a result of a poor relationship with the local authority and a perception they will have greater freedom to deliver the education model they want outside of local authority control. To think that handing all academy schools back to local authorities would be met with universal applause by the teaching profession is a utopian dreamland. Further, it would be unfair on the many local authorities that currently do not have the resources to run all schools themselves.
Second, the Labour Party must be clear that the current way that many MATs are run is unacceptable and must change. Crucial policies that could be implemented immediately include the teaching of a national curriculum that values a diverse and varied range of subjects. Subjects like religious studies, citizenship and PSHE should not be optional for schools, nor should creative subjects such as music, art or drama. Removing the ability of academies to opt out of subjects they deem to be unimportant will ensure every child is able to receive a rich and fulfilling education.
Improving workers’ rights within schools is also key to making the academy system fit for purpose. Trade union recognition must be non-negotiable, with the ability of union members to meet on school premises and to meet regularly with management. This would be a key part of improving the experience of teachers in the workplace. All schools should follow the same terms and conditions set by the DfE in negotiation with teaching unions. CEO salaries must be curbed. For the CEO of a MAT to earn six figure salary, sometimes as high as £500,000, is clearly both vulgar and inappropriate when teaching assistants routinely earn less than £20,000 a year. Add into this the fact that CEOs of MATs are overwhelming white and male, and the teaching profession is overwhelmingly female, and it is clear that these disparities in pay need urgent attention.
All school governing boards must have elected positions for both parent and staff governors, and there must be clear guidance on how to avoid a conflict of interest within the governing board e.g. academy sponsors clearly should not also sit on governing boards. More efforts must be made to deal robustly with financial mismanagement. Individuals within academy trusts who are found to be engaging in activities such as the awarding of advantageous financial contracts to family members must be dealt with firmly by the Department for Education and not be allowed to work within education in future. This should also apply to people in voluntary roles, such as governors or trustees, who have overseen poor conduct without taking action and should be prevented from taking on similar roles in other MATs. Criminal prosecutions should be pursued where appropriate.
Finally, local authorities must be given a more significant role to play within our school system once more. A good starting point would be to give all local authorities oversight and control over admissions. This should be based on a national admissions system, which would go hand in hand with the removal of any selective admissions processes based on faith or academic ability within state funded schools. Further to this, a Labour government should make it compulsory for schools to share data with the local authority on information relating to admissions and the school roll, such as whether students have been ‘managed moved’, left the country or been enrolled in alternative provision. Currently, it is difficult for local authorities to force MATs to share this information, meaning that vulnerable children who are not attending school sometimes go under the radar, which places them at risk.
Local authorities should also replace regional school commissioners as the port of call for issues around malpractice. Regional school commissioners, eight people across the country with responsibility for academies in different regions, look after a very large number of schools and unfortunately have sometimes shown a slowness to act on issues around admissions, financial mismanagement and others. Abolishing the role of regional school commissioners and empowering local authorities to have oversight of academies on key areas such as this, while still allowing MATs to run schools on a day a day to basis, would be a good compromise that would have immediate positive outcomes for students and teachers.
Such far-reaching changes could be the beginning of rebuilding local authorities’ education departments, which have been hollowed out over the last ten years. When an academy sponsor abandons a school, the local authority is currently forbidden from taking over the school and must instead seek an alternative academy sponsor. This is madness. Allowing local authorities to take over schools with no academy sponsor is essential. There should also be room for local authorities to take over academies where there is a clear failure to deliver a quality education (the old argument in favour of academisation in reverse, if you will). The 2019 Labour manifesto also said local authorities would be given powers to open new schools. This is good and should replace the faulty free school model, which allows schools to open in areas where there is no need and so funnels away public money from existing schools, which are often chronically underfunded.
The suggestions I have laid out here are a starting point for building an inclusive and democratic education system that we can be proud of. It is a vision for what should be done in the short term, to immediately improve the academy system without overreaching, while placing the experiences of students and teaching staff at its centre.