Jodie Pennacchia (University of Nottingham)
Promoting English academy schools has been a policy with the powerful ability to unite the two dominant political parties, taking centre-stage in the politics of education for the past 15 years. Originally the vision of Blair’s New Labour government, the policy has gathered momentum over its life span, expanding and diversifying to become a complex, multi-faceted policy.
What has remained consistent, in terms of the policy rhetoric, is the presentation of the academy model as a method of improving schools and of doing social justice work in education. This was positioned as a focus on improving schools in areas of deprivation under New Labour, and has been reconfigured as ‘collaboration’ between outstanding and struggling schools by the Conservative-led Coalition.
The key tenets of the policy have spoken to the centre left and centre right of the political spectrum because since the 1980s both Labour and the Conservatives have been involved in a process of diversifying schools, facilitating parental choice, and of making schools more accountable – a neo-liberal agenda which the academy model easily slots into. At the same time, both have tried to speak to a broader audience by referencing their dedication to greater social justice either through the ‘third way’ politics of New Labour or the ‘compassionate conservativism’ of the Tories. Positioning academies as a tool for creating better and more socially just schools is one policy example of this approach.
With the change of government in 2010, the academies policy acquired a discourse of mutuality. The Conservative party used the fact that this policy was backed by themselves and the main opposition as a way of legitimising it, describing it as “an evidence-based, practical solution built on by successive governments”. In the same speech Gove cited Blair in order to explain why academies are so effective, arguing that “Labour’s Academies programme proved genuinely transformative and provided a solid basis for our reforms”, and calling Adonis, a key engineer of the policy, one of the Labour party’s “best minds”. Furthermore, both parties have drawn on the same case studies and ‘heros’ of the academy programme as a way of illutsrating its benefits, with Sir Michael Wilshaw and Mossbourne Academy as the starkest examples of this.
However, on the cusp of a general election, Labour seems to have put some distance between its educational politics and the academies policy. Labour launched their education manifesto in early April and of the seven things they said we needed to know, reference to academies was noticeably absent. This contrasts with the 2010 election where Labour celebrated the merits of the model and told voters of the number of academies they had in the pipeline. Alongside this, what is present in the manifesto and other pre-election Labour commentary appears to have been selected to emphasise disparities between Labour and the Conservatives’ plans for education. In part this is achieved by criticising the Conservatives’ rapid expansion of the academies programme: “They took a good idea – the Academy Programme – and tried to force every school to become one. And they took a wrong-headed idea – Free Schools – that had decidedly mixed results elsewhere and assumed it was a panacea. Both have turned out to be mistakes. Because you can’t run every school from Whitehall, which is what their decisions on academies has driven them to”
The Conservatives’ extension to the academies programme – free schools – has been positioned as a waste of money, and Miliband has highlighted the fact that the Coalition have opened free schools in areas where there was not a demand for school places, arguing that this approach has been ideological; “an obsession with structures.”
This does not mean that Labour are turning their back on academies, but it does suggest that this is not being used as their education trump card in the build up to the election. But is this merely a political strategy, or indicative of larger shifts in the education plans of Labour under Miliband?
Distancing their educational rhetoric from the academies programme in the build up to the election may be viewed as politically savvy. From its first inception this policy has been accompanied by a continual grumbling of controversy, which has drawn on multiple narratives. In the early days ideological discontent was rife, with criticism that academies were more about promoting the interests of business and the private sector than the interests of young people. There was also concern over exclusion rates in some academies.
But since 2010 the number of reasons why academies are controversial has increased. Many of the new criticisms and controversies can be tied to the speed with which the policy has been rolled-out, with 20 times as many academies in existence now as in 2010. In addition to ideological contentions, there are now concerns over accountability as a result of the number of schools being overseen by central government. More recently there has been sustained critique of the susceptibility of the model to fraud and dubious financial behaviour.
There is also the problem of mounting research that is inconclusive about the impact of academies and academy chains. The most recent evidence has contradicted government claims that academies are closing the gap between the highest and lowest achievers and that the converted academy model can be equated with a greater capacity for school improvement. Claims about increased social justice are also under scrutiny. Research by Stephen Gorard has shown that academies are increasing segregation between more and less wealthy pupils.
There is concern that large chains are at risk of suffering from the same bureaucracy as the local authorities academies were designed to alleviate. Some chains have been told to hand back some of their schools because they have become too large to maintain proper oversight. Add to this concerns about radicalisation, and we begin to see why academies might have been relegated to the background of Labour’s pre-election education plans, or drawn on as a way of critiquing the opposition. Perhaps what we are seeing is a lesson in how to manage the discourse around a policy that your party originally designed, but that has since departed from its original scope, attracted ever more controversy, and been promoted by an unpopular Secretary of State for Education.
It could also be symptomatic of Labour’s ‘shift to the left’ under the leadership of Miliband. Tony Blair has voiced concerns over Miliband’s steering of the party away from the political centre and towards a more traditional Labour Party approach. If we equate a move to the left with a return to the more traditional social democratic values of Labour, this could explain Miliband’s more modest praise of the academies programme, compared to his predecessors.
Instead, Miliband chose to take a different emphasis in his pre-election education plans, highlighting the importance of careers guidance, early intervention, and of raising the status of the arts, which he saw as being side-lined by the Coalition government. He has discussed the mental health difficulties faced by one in ten young people, and implied that a relentless and narrow emphasis on exams is problematic. Whilst there are no explicit plans to back track on the academy programme, there are plans to tackle the accountability issues that have arisen. Labour are proposing new Directors of School Standards, whose job will be to support local schools to improve and respond to the concerns of parents.
In looking at the ebbs and flows of a particular policy discourse, and the way it gains more or less status within party rhetoric on education at a particular time, we can observe slight shifts in the priority given to social justice. The side-lining of academies at this point may be a political strategy and we may yet see them reassume their position at the centre-stage of Labour’s education plans depending on the outcome on May 7th.
A more optimistic view might be that Miliband is taking seriously the evidence that academies are not tackling stubborn educational issues such as segregation and inequality, and may even be exacerbating them. However, this recognition alone would not pose any real threat to the educational status quo. A relentless focus on standards continues to dominate education policy, placing ever-more pressure on students, teachers and schools. Side-lining academies in discourse, but changing nothing in the wider policy context, would do little to bring about the changes that Diane Reay recently described in her radical manifesto for education.
Jodie Pennacchia is Doctoral Researcher in the School of Sociology and Social Policy of the University of Nottingham.