Apparently, 45% of England's secondary schools are now academies, with the DES's financial sweeteners and propaganda campaign through social media continuing to exhort schools to detach themselves from local authorities. What we are witnessing is a gradual privatisation of the education system. It is currently illegal for schools to be run on a for-profit basis, but it won't be long before sponsored chains of schools cream off public funds for the benefit of their investors. Meanwhile schools are directly accountable to central government through Ofsted. I am struck by how all this is happening with remarkably little fuss beyond the columns if The Guardian. The Labour party, still in thrall to the Blairite competition ethic, looks like a rabbit stuck in the headlights.
Is there a case for academies? Although very recent research suggests early adopting academies in poorer areas have done a little better than equivalent community schools, it may be too soon to judge whether results will fall or rise, since so many schools have only recently converted and it will take a few years for any change in practice to make its mark. Evidence from Sweden and the USA is not promising, however.
Chains of academies do allow for the sharing of best practice, but why has it been necessary to take local authorities out of the equation to bring about cooperation? Local education authorities have encouraged a good deal of cooperation through subject leader meetings, heads' meetings, inspector advisors, online sharing of resources, school improvement partnerships and the like. Academies are experimenting with new ideas such as longer days, but there is nothing to stop community schools going beyond fossilised practices. Leadership is key and academies have no monopoly on good leadership.
The current reforms look suspiciously driven by dogma and a desire to reduce public spending in the long term. Remember: Conservatives have wanted to take power away from LEAs for years. If you want an analogy, just think of the NHS reforms. Academies have little to do with localism or freeing up teachers and leaders to be inventive. It is easy to foresee a time when the bulk of schools are run by private companies financed by shareholders. Local accountability will no longer exist, working conditions for teachers will deteriorate, salaries could be squeezed with no national bargaining, whilst executive heads earn inflated salaries.
In the meantime there is no evidence standards will rise as professional development budgets are squeezed. As formative assessment guru Dylan Wiliam argues, standards will only rise with better teachers, not new structures and systems. Michael Gove is taking a huge risk with this rapid reform. One consolation is that teachers will continue to do their jobs, whatever the school structure they work in. Achievement will probably hold its own, whilst teachers see their working conditions eroded. The privatisation of England's school system is a sign of the times. The post-war social consensus is long over.