A brief thought on academies

All primary schools are to become academies. This has been coming for a while; we all knew it would happen. But it’s sad all the same. The coming privatisation of education was one of the reasons I left full-time teaching, but to those outside education I’m guessing it must be a hard story to follow. From the outside I imagine it sounds like a relatively minor shift in organisation, moving away from a council-led system to a school-led system. It might even sound empowering and optimistic: a redirection of power away from the council and towards the grass roots of schools and teachers. It’s not.

I’m not going to write too much about the sadness I’m feeling today, or about the very good arguments against academisation, because there’s good people doing the same more eloquently than I can. They’re making arguments about the creeping privatisation that has already crept into the heart of the school system, and about the unfairness of un-redistribution of wealth. They’re also making good but fundamentally self-serving arguments about pay and conditions. And they (Lucy Powell) are making bland not-really-arguments about efficacy and budget management, entirely forgetting that education is not primarily an economic issue.

Those arguments are all great (except the last one, obviously, which isn’t even an argument – more of a whine and a shrug), but the point I want to make is a moral (and I hope practical) one about fear and solidarity.

First, then, solidarity. Schools are not islands. They’re part of a community – often the most important part of a community. They’re also part of groups which share practice and knowledge across different schools, groups which get better prices for services by buying in bulk, and myriad other groups. This is important. Without these groupings schools would not function. In the olden days, the groups to which schools most closely adhered were the Local Authorities (the LA) which ran the schools. These were geographical groupings which, like communities did in the olden days, bought together people and schools of different types and attitudes.

When I taught in Enfield, the LA bought together schools in some of the most deprived and dangerous parts of London with schools serving those who lived in streets where the average property price is over £2 million. This served many purposes – not least the redistribution of funding away from schools where it was not needed towards those where it was. But perhaps more importantly it gave us a sense of identity and solidarity with those unlike us. For example, I’m virulently anti-posh, but felt a great sense of solidarity with the posh schools we were partnered with. I felt impelled to help them where I could, and to be helped in return. The LA allowed us to conceive of education as a moral and communitarian project; one based not on efficacy and efficiency and outcome measures, but on solidarity and care. We were in it together.

Doubtless this was an inefficient way to run things. Doubtless changes could’ve been made to make LA’s more useful and coherent – I was the first to complain about the way that the system was being run. But when you take it away what are you left with?

Well, schools not being islands, they will need to band together, as is already happening. But how do they band together in this new, post-LA world? The more ambitious will band together in loose alliances of similarity. Like single-issue political groups they will look for strength in numbers with those who are the same. Geography being no longer such a relevance (we’ve got skypes after all), schools are free to find similarities at a distance and, like teenagers seeking affirmation, find a grouping which buttresses their sense of uniqueness and importance. The less ambitious will (and this is much more likely) out of fear band together under a new boss who tells them what to be and do. These are academy chains. In both cases there is no sense of solidarity with a project which is open to the world – there is just a niche and an inward-looking. A closing off and an erecting of boundaries.

‘So what?’ You might think. ‘If it makes schools better at teaching children why not do it?’ Quite aside from the fact that it doesn’t make schools better, there is a bigger issue here which is that schools socialise children into society. They act as mini-worlds in which children learn what society thinks about them as individuals and groups. In the messy LA-led school environment, there were plenty problems, but there was at least a sense of community and connection and identity. We were public servants doing things because they were right – culturally, socially and morally – not because they worked or because we were being paid. In these academy chains your identity is not provided even in part by a location or a history or a culture – it is provided entirely by an insular grouping of people whose main aim is to make a profit out of the state. This is it. This is the culture that the child is growing up into. This is the message they receive about themselves and their place in the world: your place, child, is not connected to your area or your family or culture or society or nation – your place is defined by a corporation. A business. In these new academy chains there is no public service, no giving; only rational choice and self-interest. Elliott Eisener wrote about the industrial metaphor in education which sees children as input and output. He wrote in the 60s about how it was thankfully disappearing. But its coming back now.

I’ve already written more than I meant to, so I’ll keep my second point – about fear – brief. I’ve written before about fear in the education system, and how it is propagated and accepted at every level from DfE and OfSTED down. The reason I bring it up again is that this is the other message which we are sending to our children: be afraid.

Imagine, for a moment, what this new loosening of constraints would have looked like if there were no OfSTED or league tables. It might have inspired a revolution in creativity and connection and care, as schools concentrated on what really matters to their children and to society. All of the time spent following developing and implementing useless and harmful curricula could be refocused on children’s development as people. Schools would have grouped together in order to be more responsive, open and creative, and teachers would have become researchers and artists, able and trained to trust the children in their care.

But in a climate of fear and oversight, schools are not in a place to do this. The driving concern is to maintain and keep safe. This is what motivates them to band together. The main aim is not to get it wrong and be found wanting. Creativity can not flourish in these circumstances. Neither can children. But this is what we will soon be teaching them about themselves and the world.


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