As another teacher said to me recently, one of the scariest words in the jargon of school managers is ‘support’. The government’s plan to ‘support and challenge’ English state schools – the Education and Adoption Bill, which has now passed the committee stage – is very scary indeed. There are 21,500 state-funded schools in England; nearly 5000 of them are academies. Each one is under the control of a trust or private limited company, and each trust has an individual funding agreement with the education secretary to establish and maintain academies. When a local authority school is converted into an academy, once the contract is signed, local government stewardship, with its bothersome requirements for consultation and public oversight, is at an end.
Since 2010 there has been a massive centralisation of the English education system, with thousands of schools now under the direct supervision of the secretary of state. The 2010 Academies Act – rushed through Parliament using a procedure normally reserved for counter-terrorism laws – made possible the forced academisation of schools that had been identified as ‘eligible for intervention’. These were usually schools that had been inspected by Ofsted and placed in special measures, or found to be requiring ‘significant improvement’.
The 2010 Act allowed for some consultation with stakeholders – teachers, governors, parents, local councillors – although, in practice, resistance to academisation could be overridden by an ‘academy order’. The new Education Bill not only removes the need for consultation on the conversion of ‘eligible’ schools into academies, but places a duty on the education secretary to issue an academy order in such cases. Councils and school governors ‘must take all reasonable steps to facilitate the conversion of the school into an academy’. According to the education secretary, Nicky Morgan, the aim is to ‘sweep away the bureaucratic and legal loopholes previously exploited by those who put ideological objections above the best interests of children’.
The bill also widens the criteria on which a local authority school can be judged as failing. Any school that fails to achieve a 60 per cent ‘pass rate’ – that is, 60 per cent of students gaining A* to C grades in five GCSEs including English and maths – will be identified as ‘coasting’. This is a dramatic hike in the so-called ‘floor standards’. When the coalition came to power, the floor for secondary schools was 35 per cent. Gove raised it to 40 per cent. Local authority schools that miss the target can quickly end up ‘in category’, to use the DfE slang. The floor is now effectively being raised to 60 per cent (a similarly inflated target has been set for primary schools). Morgan is also bringing into play the ‘Progress 8’ measure of students’ improvement between the end of primary school and GCSEs. When these new accountability measures take effect, thousands of schools will suddenly find that they are coasting. If they are local authority controlled, they will be targeted for academisation.
Morgan has made it clear that the identification of coasting schools will not be left to Ofsted. Relations between the inspectorate and the DfE are at an all-time low, because of Ofsted’s bad habit of failing academies and free schools – this was already causing ‘serious concerns’ at the DfE in 2013, according to a leaked memo – and Michael Wilshaw’s tactless demand to be allowed to investigate the management of academy chains. Ofsted will increasingly be sidelined by the eight regional school commissioners, a new middle tier of officials between the academy trusts and the secretary of state (but far from a return to local oversight). The precise nature of their responsibilities is still unclear – as the education journalist Warwick Mansell has pointed out, this latest transformation of the system was planned ‘almost entirely in private in Whitehall, without public consultation’ – but the new commissioners are likely to play a key role in the next wave of academisation.
Nick Gibb, the minister for schools, told MPs that failing schools ‘must become academies with the support of an effective sponsor, to give them the necessary support and challenge to turn the school around’. One such sponsor is the Kemnal Academies Trust (TKAT), which controls 41 schools in the South East. Asked about the ‘effectiveness of academisation in narrowing the gap for disadvantaged children’, TKAT told the Education Select Committee in 2013 that it has ‘the systems and structures, in terms of quality assurance, accountability and data interrogation’ to ensure ‘accelerated improvement’. TKAT sacked 26 of 40 headteachers at its schools within weeks of taking over. The remaining staff then received ‘the necessary support and challenge’ from new management teams (‘Some staff will rise to the challenge… whilst others will decide to leave’).
The result can be something less than a turnaround. Last summer, in one of the ‘focused’ inspections that cause such concern at the DfE, Ofsted visited six primary academies in the TKAT chain. One was placed in special measures, three were judged to require improvement and two were rated as ‘good’. None was ‘outstanding’. TKAT told the Education Committee that ‘neither the DfE nor Ofsted understand the effectiveness of our QA [quality assurance] and school improvement model.’
The parallels between TKAT’s ‘school improvement model’ and the management methods of private equity firms are quite striking, though perhaps not surprising. The Trust’s non-executive directors include Ian Armitage, a venture capitalist and private equity investor, and John Kelly, the former CEO of Gala, ‘the largest private equity betting and gaming business in Europe’. The vice-chair of the Board of Directors, Aruna Mehta, was a senior manager at JP Morgan Chase. TKAT claims to have ‘a more business-like approach than might be seen anywhere else in the academy chain world’. But the make-up of the TKAT board is by no means untypical. One of the most powerful and influential chains, ARK Schools, has seven trustees. Five of them are hedge fund managers.
The thousands of funding agreements between academy trusts and the education secretary are, as Peter Newsam has noted, ‘at the heart of the privatisation project’. The nationalisation of English state schools (removing them from local authority control) opens the way to full-scale privatisation. Sooner or later, one of the individual, transferable contracts will be made over to a for-profit provider, even if the Conservatives made a manifesto pledge not to allow schools to be run for profit. England’s disintegrating education system will then have its Hinchingbrooke Hospital. The vultures that descended on Hinchingbrooke – the hedge funds and private equity firms that backed Circle Health – have been circling schools for some time.