Over the next five years New Labour plans another massive handover of public services to big business — striking at the heart of comprehensive education. Under the city academies programme private sponsors are to get their hands on 200 schools by 2010.
The scheme is at the centre of the government’s five year education strategy. It is pressing ahead despite calls by a Labour-dominated Commons committee last month for a moratorium.
Seventeen academies have already been set up and 42 more are in the pipeline. They are based on the idea, trailed under Margaret Thatcher, that private companies should run education.
Academies are independent schools funded by public money. The chief executive of the quango set up to promote them, Rona Kiley, says, “The people who are interested include corporations, some of the banks are providing sponsorship, and wealthy individuals.”
But the sponsorship they bring in return for getting to control a whole school is negligible. The government has lowered the contribution that the privateers have to make to, at most, £2 million of building costs. In some planned academies it is £1.5 million. That is about 8 percent of costs. The rest is public money handed to the sponsors.
The government then provides up to £7.2 million a year for each school’s running costs.
Building costs have soared. Originally, schools were to be built for £10 million each. But the building costs for the 12 academies opened last September averaged £23 million.
Even the initial outlay by sponsors can be clawed back. Meanwhile, the individuals and outfits taking over the 200 academies are to be given £5 billion of public money as a down payment and regular government donations to meet running costs.
The academic results for this cash, which state schools can only dream of, are poorer than for the comprehensive schools which they replace — which were supposedly beyond redemption.
Academies are represented in local meetings of schools that are meant to establish sensible admissions policies. But the academies are able to select their students. They are only accountable to the education secretary.
There is already evidence that academies are selecting more able children so that the school is more likely to boast of “improved” exam results.
This can happen even where the academy supposedly has a fair admissions system of taking children from different bands (ranges of academic achievement).
A parent told the Guardian last year of one academy in London, “The new academy is keeping to the letter of its policy by selecting on bands. But places are going to those at the top of each band.
“One boy in the middle of the top band was turned down, while others near the top who live further away from the academy got in.”
This further distorts the pattern of education provision locally, with sharper competition between schools, a break-up of any idea of a comprehensive intake and normal schools looking on as huge amounts of cash go to academies.
Sponsors are free to push their own pet schemes in academies. Parents in Bristol are worried that the academy there is focusing on hotel and catering work.
Sir Alec Reed’s West London Academy tries to bring business into all areas of the curriculum. He says he wants every child to see themselves as “Me PLC”.
The Bexley Academy has a mock stock exchange.
Some parents can be attracted to the idea of a new academy. But this is only because they are replacing schools that have been panned under the government’s policy of naming and shaming underfunded schools.
As with the privatisation of council housing, parents are told the only way they can expect extra money is to opt for an academy. In this case they do not even get a vote.
Academies fit with New Labour’s policy for a three-tier system for 14 to 19 year olds. This will divide children into workplace training, work-related education and, for the middle classes and some working class students, an academic curriculum.
This represents an abandonment of comprehensive education. That’s why teachers and parents are mounting campaigns against the spread of academies, and why there is such disillusion with Tony Blair over what he said would be the defining feature of his government — education.