An academy is a state-funded school which is independent from local authority. They are run by academy trusts and have several ‘freedoms’ that non-academy schools do not. They have the ability to buy in services privately that were previously provided, and overseen, by the local authority. They are responsible for their own term times and, to a certain extent, admissions policies. They can choose not to follow the national curriculum and employ teachers who are not qualified.
There are, of course, some strict rules that they are expected to follow – they can’t solely teach juggling or only accept pupils with higher than average IQs. They must have a “balanced” and “broadly based” curriculum and are subject to the same admissions code as other schools.
However, when a school becomes an academy, in a sense, it is cut off from the community it serves. Schools are set up to become independent bubbles – separate entities that are then pitched against each other in the race to achieve exam success. They can choose to divert their resources however they wish in order to best achieve that goal.
Students from difficult backgrounds, those who are poor, in social care, those who have had to fight their whole lives for what others take for granted – they do not perform as well in exams as other children. It is a sad fact. An academy has the power to discourage such pupils from attending.
An academy can choose to spend less on Special Educational Needs provision, can choose to influence its cohort and attract pupils from more affluent areas, can choose to direct all of its resources and time towards academically more able students. And all this, without a single jot of accountability to the communities and families it serves or the teachers it employs.
An academy can choose to spend less on certain subjects – Art and Drama are not important in the league tables, after all. They can pay Art and Drama teachers less. Drop them from the curriculum entirely. It doesn’t matter if your child, or my child, was destined to win an Oscar or be the next Picasso; we might never know.
Which schools would choose to make such transparently immoral decisions, you might ask? Most teachers I have met are an idealistic bunch, I admit. Most educators, most head teachers, did not enter the profession with an ideology that favours the privileged. Many teachers and heads care about all the children they serve and use the academy system to continue to support all. Some academies are wonderful places because the people running them are fair, clear-sighted and competent.
But not all. And the pressure of exam and Ofsted success within schools is absolutely crushing. The fear of exam failure or an unsatisfactory Ofsted can slowly but surely kill even the most idealistic spirit, believe me.
And it is already happening. I have heard stories of heads in other counties ‘suggesting’ to parents that neighbouring schools ‘are more set up for SEN’ and that their school caters more for the ‘gifted and talented’ – head teachers already seeking to turn away parents of pupils who might affect their exam results. What will happen when every school has the power to influence the things listed above without check? Are we really naive enough to believe that this kind of thing won’t happen more frequently?
When you turn a school into an academy, it becomes just a little bit more like a business – a business whose profits are exam success.
This puts schools in a position where they are able sacrifice the obligation they have to cater to all potential students, from diverse backgrounds. It creates another little corner of the world where we are encouraged to direct resources and time towards the bright, the rich, the already successful.
It enables the poor, the disadvantaged and the disabled to be overlooked, because they represent too much effort, too much time, too much money – for too little a potential ‘return’ when it comes to exam success.
As a teacher, this is demoralising and saddening.
As a mother – the mother of a bright little boy with autism who could achieve wonderful things with the right resources and a school committed to fighting his corner – it is absolutely heart-breaking.
My son is lucky. He has me, he has his father – both teachers, both willing and able to fight for support and learn how to best help him ourselves. We will not let him slip through the cracks.
But what of the others? What of children with educational needs with no family support, what of those in care, from poorer backgrounds, those with challenging and complex needs? What about those parents who are not teachers, who try their best but struggle to know how best to help their child? What about the unsupported, the neglected, the unloved?
I see them in my classroom every day.
Schools should be the first places that enable these students to overturn the limited expectations that society unfairly gives them. Education is the means by which we can all make something of ourselves. Education is a ticket out of poverty, a means to build confidence, a symbol of hope and equality that says ALL can find something here. With determination and hard work, ALL can claim success. When you make all schools academies, you take something away from this dream, this picture of what education SHOULD be.
I guess if you were educated at Eton, that ethos can be hard to understand.