The current government has had to make an embarrassing U-turn on its commitment to force all schools in England to ‘academise’ by 2020 after facing the threat of industrial action from the teaching unions. (See DfE U-turn on forced academies, NUT, 6 May 2016)
Academisation is the process of transferring control of a school from the local authority to a private ‘charitable’ trust, which then runs the school on behalf the government. Although the schools themselves cannot be run for profit, this limitation can be and is blatantly circumvented, as the trusts are permitted to outsource the running of their schools to for-profit education providers.
Looting the coffers
This disgrace was exactly what we saw in the Midlands, with K12 (a large player in the US market for online school and curriculum provision) establishing the Erudition Schools Trust and running four schools from 2011. Following the example of other academy trusts, the Erudition Schools Trust is a private company limited by guarantee, without shareholders.
However, K12 Inc set up a British subsidiary, K12 Education UK Ltd, incorporated in August 2011. The directors of this company were Ron Packard, Maria Szalay, and John Holdren, with Howard Polsky acting as company secretary. At this time, Ron Packard was, of course, CEO of K12 Inc; Maria Szalay was senior vice president of product development; John Holdren was senior VP of content and curriculum; and Howard Polsky was general counsel and secretary.
In December 2011, the Erudition Schools Trust was established. Its directors were Ron Packard, Maria Szalay, John Holdren, and John Woodward, with Howard Polsky acting as secretary. Members of K12 Inc’s senior executive team, including the CEO, had appointed themselves both as the directors of a non-profit trust and as the directors of K12 Education UK Ltd, which was selling education services to the new trust.
Under the arrangements for academies, there is nothing illegal about any of this. In 2015, K12 announced that it had decided not to continue running two of its academies, Charles Coddy Walker academy and the Queen Elizabeth academy. In the public stakeholder meeting, a representative from K12 explained that decision was due to the operation of the schools being ‘less profitable’ than anticipated. (See Players in the market: K12 Inc and the Erudition Schools Trust by M Bennett, Local Schools Network, 6 August 2016)
Additionally, the top bosses of academy trusts are taking full advantage of the opportunities to line their own pockets at the expense of working people. Daniel Moyniham, parasitic CEO of Harris Federation, a federation of primary and secondary academies in and around London, was revealed as having been paid £375,611 of public money in the academic year 2013-14. (See Academy boss earns more than chief executive of NHS England by W Mansell, The Guardian, 10 February 2015)
By comparison, the upper end of the largest salary range for a head teacher in inner London (2016-17) as set out by the department for education (DfE) is £115,582.
The land and buildings that schools currently occupy are of enormous value. During academisation, control of this property is transferred from the collective pool of state-owned land to the private trust.
The Department for Education provides a flat rate start-up grant of £25,000 towards the process of transition, but the DfE itself confirms this does not cover the full costs of pursuing academy status and that schools converting to academies should devote some of their own funds to the process. The transferring of human resources and land into ownership of a private body is legally complicated and some schools have found the cost in legal fees exceeds the money offered by the DfE, thereby stealing money from the public meant for education and putting it into the hands of private law firms.
Wakefield City Academies Trust, which managed 21 academies across Yorkshire, declared in September 2017 that it would be disbanding, leaving a void for a new sponsor to take over the role. In the process, the academy trust stripped the schools of their assets by moving funds from the schools’ to the trust’s account.
In Hemsworth Arts and Community academy in Pontefract, this included £220,000 that had been raised by volunteers at Christmas markets and other school events, and a further £216,000 that had been held back for capital investment. In Heath View primary school in Wakefield, £300,000 had been transferred to the trust in September 2016. For Wakefield City academy, more than £800,000 had been transferred towards the end of 2015.
High Crags academy primary school in Shipley, when it was instructed by the DfE to join the trust in April 2016, had its surplus of £178,000 immediately moved to centralised accounts operated by the academy trust. The chief executive of Wakefield City Academies Trust, Mike Ramsay, had been paid more than £82,000 for 15 weeks’ work, despite the trust facing a large budget deficit. Additionally, the trust had paid almost £440,000 to IT and clerking companies owned by Ramsay and his daughter. (See Collapsing academy trust ‘asset-stripped its schools of millions’ by F Perraudin, The Guardian, 21 October 2017)
These are just a few ways by which academisation is a cover for a transfer of wealth from the collectively owned assets held by local authorities to private individuals. It is a robbery of children’s education for the benefit of private interests.
But unfortunately academisation is but one part of a much larger worldwide insidious restructuring of education and changes in the way choices about education are being made. Education academics refer to this global trend as the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM). (See How GERM is infecting schools around the world by P Sahlberg, The Washington Post, 29 June 2012)
GERM is pushed onto countries through terms and conditions on international loans lent by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – one of the key arms of the imperialist economic system. Kuehn (2015) writes “They call for decentralisation in responsibility for funding education, but centralising the control of content and teachers.” (Teacher solidarity across borders: an essential response to neoliberal globalisation by L Kuehn, Global Education ‘Reform’: Building resistance and solidarity, 2015)
The outcome here is that the immensely valuable education systems of oppressed nations are being marketised to create profits for businesses in imperialist countries.
Since the 1980s the prevailing bourgeois ideology of neoliberalism has played an ever-increasing role in determining education policy. Neoliberalism “rests firmly upon notions of freedom of choice, market force and quality by competition (strongly counterposed to the worth or possibility of equality).” (Discipline and chaos: the new right and discourses of derision, 1990, from S Ball, Education Policy and Social Class, 2005)
This view is supported by academics such as Gert Biesta, who has described the reconfiguration of the relationship between citizens and the state into that of an economic relationship, with the state as a provider and the citizens the consumers it ‘serves’. (See Good Education in an Age of Measurement: Ethics, Politics, Democracy, 2011)
The reason for moving the responsibility of decision making away from government institutions and into the hands of private bodies is to attempt to decentralise decisions about the allocation of educational resources – a key tenet of neoliberalism being that spontaneous decision making (resembling that of agents in a market) is preferable to the ‘inefficient’ bureaucracy of planned change.
Indeed, one of the provisions the British government is now proposing is the removal of the legal right of parents to elect governors for school governing bodies – called ‘governing boards’ in the business-model academies.
The government’s flagship academisation white paper, Educational Excellence Everywhere (2016) – does not contain any discussion on what constitutes a ‘good education’. This lack of engagement with the question of ‘good education’ minimises democratic influence over education by excluding the voices of individuals who should be taking part in the discussion.
On this topic, Biesta states: “Such discourses often appear to be about the quality of education – think, for example, of discussions about the effectiveness of education or on accountability in education – but in fact never address the question of good education itself. They rather displace the normative question of good education with technical and managerial questions about the efficiency and effectiveness of processes, not what these processes are supposed to be for.”
Biesta goes on: “Choice has become the key word in this discourse. Yet ‘choice’ is about the behaviour of consumers in a market where their aim is to satisfy their needs, and should not be conflated with democracy, which is about public deliberation and contestation about the common goods and the just and equitable (re)distribution of public resources.”
Although students and parents use and access education, they lack control over the choices involved, so lack autonomy in their educational lives. This trend is described by academics as the ‘learnification’ of education. Evidence of this new discourse can be found in thinktank Reform’s 2009 report ‘A new level’, which contained this ideologically loaded nugget: “We believe that by reforming the public sector, increasing investment and extending choice, high quality services can be made available for everyone.”
The choice of language here demonstrates the increased commodification of education and the rise in the culture of ‘managerialism’ within education, and with it the stress on the constant attention to ‘quality’, being close to the customer and the value of innovation.
As SJ Ball wrote in 1990: “In effect pupils are reduced to a form of exchange between parents and schools.” (Politics and Policy Making in Education: Explorations in Policy Sociology)
This has led to nominally ‘comprehensive’ schools using underhand methods to be selective in their intake – a trend of particular harm to students with special needs, who are considered ‘low value’, given the demands they make of school resources in relation to the progress they are expected to make academically. (See Academies turn away children with special needs to ‘cherry-pick’ pupils, charity warns by S Cassidy and R Garner, The Independent, 3 January 2016)
“In one case involving Mossbourne academy in Hackney … the school refused to admit an 11-year-old boy with cerebral palsy, arguing it would compromise other children’s education and it already had a higher than average number of pupils with special needs.” (Academies’ refusal to admit pupils with special needs prompts legal battles by J Harris and J Vasagar, The Guardian, 24 May 2012)
This reduction of social relationships to that of exchange relationships was analysed by Marx in Capital. His description of “commodity fetishism” very accurately describes the ‘values’ that inform educational policy in the 21st century. Today in capitalist Britain, the social relations between people involved in education are perceived as economic relations. (1867)
The solution to the continued threat of having educational resources syphoned off into the hands of profit-hungry parasites is a system of education where the resources are held in collective ownership and where decisions about their allocation are made democratically and not left to be toyed with by economic agents interested only in lining their own pockets. We only have to look to places where scientific socialism has been applied around the world to see what the alternative to the law of the philosophy of plunder can offer.
In socialist Cuba, which has steadfastly resisted imperialism since the revolution in 1959 and has insulated itself from the ideology of neoliberalism, the data on education speaks volumes.
Recognising the emancipatory potential of education, resources are allocated according to the needs of learners. There are no standardised tests before the age of 16, the class size target in primary school is 20 students, which is achieved in 93 percent of cases. Where there are more than 20 students, there are two teachers.
Every class elects a class president, a vice-president and a health and hygiene officer and every school elects a school president and vice-president. (See Valuing Education: Report of the 2016 NUT delegation to Cuba)
Together, these class and school presidents and vice-presidents have an input into the curriculum. Additionally, changes to the curriculum must be agreed by both the Cuban national assembly and by the National Union of Education, Science and Sports Workers (SNTECD).
As the general secretary of the union put it to an NUT delegation of British teachers in 2006: “How can a teacher be expected to implement a curriculum if they have not been involved in developing it?” This represents a far cry from educational decisions being decided by profiteering class enemies.
Free, quality education for all
We demand free, universal, high quality education, from nursery and pre-school through to postgraduate level, which does more than just impart skills and qualities for the ‘world of work in the 21st century’. It must also nurture the humanity and creativity of students, develop their critical and analytical skills, and imbue them with a love of learning for life.
Only socialism will bring true freedom and equality to the classroom. Meanwhile, we put forward the following programme, which would go some way towards alleviating the gross inequalities of the present educational divide in Britain. We demand:
– the abolition of all private schools, grammar schools, religious schools and city academies; a single education system for all British children;
– a return to public funding and an end to the debt trap of PFI (Private Finance Initiative) for the building and renovation of school buildings; the cancellation of all existing PFI debt;
– an end to local management of schools, the internal market, league tables, ‘parental choice’, SATs, the privatisation of services, and the national curriculum;
– all school buildings to be returned to state property and opened for community use out of school hours;
– the establishment of a truly comprehensive system of education with mixed ability teaching;
– a reduction in class sizes and an increase in teaching and support staff;
– the improvement and harmonisation of facilities and specialist staff so that all schools are able to offer the same opportunities to children, no matter where they go to school;
– decent pay and respect for all teachers, with a single, national pay scale for teachers, continuous professional development, and supportive measures for improving performance where necessary;
– the full integration of the arts, music and physical education at every stage of primary and secondary school;
– a substantial increase in funding to achieve all these aims;
– an end to tuition fees and loans for both undergraduate and postgraduate university students and a return to the payment of maintenance grants.