Austin Macauley Publishers
31 Aug 2021
As titles go, The Great Education Robbery is about as emotive as they come. And yet, you won’t find some crank conspiracy in these pages but a carefully unfolding analysis of the academisation programme at a micro and a macro level. In fact, the argument Gann posits – that the policy is fundamentally against the principles of democratic accountability – is wholly compelling.
“But,” I hear you cry, “you’re a MAT CEO. Are you not democratically accountable?”. Well, I like to think I am. At least, I try to make myself as accountable to my communities as I can. But that doesn’t negate Gann’s wider point. To be properly democratic, my accountability shouldn’t depend on my viewpoint.
Taking as his ideological basis the Education Act of 1988, he argues both passionately and convincingly that the move away from community and local authority leadership of schools represents a fundamental and indeed fatal shift towards the corporatisation of schools.
He goes on to show that this move was a structured and intentional plan to create a new education leadership class of very wealthy and politically connected business owners. This new ‘blob’ has turned a public good into private profit, and used the shocks of Brexit and the pandemic to secure a hold on the market in government contracts.
“But hold on,” I hear you cry again, “are you a wealthy crony?”. Well, no. But frankly, some are. And the fact that some trusts are even to be passed down generationally on a somewhat feudal hereditary principle seems to prove Gann’s point. It won’t happen in my trust on my watch, but some future CEO and board of trustees could follow that path.
So this is powerful stuff. And Gann’s structure around what he calls the “seven deadly sins” of corporatised schools makes for quite the exposé on the de-democratisation of our education system and how the gains made since the Victorian era are being subverted.
But there is a fundamental flaw. Permeating the book is a sense of some halcyon “once upon a time” when democratic accountability through local government delivered a just and effective school system. Many will baulk at that.
And Gann pays little heed to the number of trusts and other informal partnerships between academies that have embraced civic leadership as the basis of their co-operation and operation. His idealism leads him to succumb to the temptation of equating legalistic structures with the effectiveness of their application. It wasn’t the case for local authorities and it isn’t for academies either. And I say this as someone who organised the resistance against the conversion of my own school over a decade ago, precisely for the reasons that Gann notes.
To an extent then, The Great Education Robbery speaks to a system that was, rather than the one that is. In terms of the ethics and leadership of the sector, what David Carter would call the MAT 2.0 system is already being enacted. And the work of the Confederation of School Trusts and other sector bodies has done much to redress gaps and to promote a better balance between democratic accountability and professional accountability, both of which are vital.
Gann also overlooks the sector’s response to the pandemic, which was characterised by previously unimaginable sector-wide collaboration. Academy trusts gave and continue to give support to colleagues in stand-alone academies and local authority schools alike, and there is no sense that this culture is going anywhere.
These criticisms aside, this book is an important reminder of our public duty. Reading it has led me to redouble our own efforts to ensure our practices are truly anchored in the Nolan principles.
It’s also a signpost to a better system, in which localism is not about ticking a box but ensuring the work we do is centred around all those we serve – not just those on our roll.
But mostly, it’s a cautionary tale about what could happen to our system if we don’t strike a balance between acting locally, and thinking globally.