It’s not true that academies care more about money than pupils

5 Jul 2018, 12:00

Contrary to the claims of some researchers, academisation is not creating a market, and it is not putting finances ahead of pupil success, says Martyn Oliver

Some things never change.

Exams finished, the sun shining, and pupils, parents and teachers nervously wondering if the little voice in their head whispering “it’s coming home” is correct.
And then, the latest big scandal hits. This time, it’s a report from the Institute of Education that slams structural changes to the school system, predominantly through the rise of academies.

The headline pulled no punches: ‘A market-led school system has put finances before the needs of pupils’, which is a serious accusation. I don’t think it’s a remotely accurate view of our system, and the report fails to prove it.

The crux of the argument revolves around free school meals: according to their data, schools judged ‘outstanding’ admit fewer children that qualify. Through this, it seems to have been extrapolated that the whole system is in crisis, even though there may be several explanations for the stat.

For example, at one of our schools in Middlesbrough, the percentage of FSM pupils has fallen 10 per cent since 2014, but the raw numbers of FSM pupils have actually risen (530 to 564). This is because, as the school has come out of special measures, parents that had abandoned it (or planned to go elsewhere) come back, increasing the roll (857 to 1080) and reducing the FSM percentage.

There are other factors that can have a huge impact, such as parents gaining low-paid work and losing eligibility, or parents increasingly not applying for FSM at the end of key stage 1. The study doesn’t seem to have picked up on nuances like this. The research is also based on four areas, rather than the whole country, and two of them have a significantly lower-than-average density of academies and multi-academy trusts.

This is, quite frankly, shallow data, used to dress up political point-scoring as something more robust. Simply put, academisation is not creating a market, and it is not putting finances ahead of pupil success. Academies are charities whose purpose is to advance education in their area through educating their pupils to the best of their ability. I haven’t seen a single school, in all my years in the sector, that fits these bogus accusations. It is true that there have been rare, usually isolated cases of corruption in both academies and local authorities, but I’m tired of those ideologically opposed to academisation speaking as though it happens everywhere they go.

The authors then blame academisation for over-testing and narrowing the curriculum. Whilst I have no doubt that some schools are focusing too much on accountability measures, I see no suggestion this is exclusive to academies, or caused by structural changes. The irony doesn’t escape me as I pen this piece from a stadium in Leeds, watching children from across the trust compete in our annual ‘Olympic event’, before heading off to watch over 800 students perform at the York Barbican!

There are nevertheless a few points of interest in the report. There is some sense in suggesting that the Ofsted framework can make judging schools with a disadvantaged intake more difficult, although the best inspections take into account these difficulties. But even then, there is a counter that these pupils need a good school more than most, and if some are providing Ofsted-outstanding education in disadvantaged areas across the country every day, why shouldn’t everyone be held to this high standard?

The authors sum up their accompanying op-ed by claiming academisation produces “a system that places economic incentives above equity, inclusion and professionalism”. This is wrong on all counts.

I have covered the equity point, but the claim that inclusion is not one of the highest priorities of academy leaders (well above economic incentives) is nothing short of offensive. There are countless MATs, like ourselves, who have sponsored school after school in some of the most challenging circumstances: high levels of deprivation, high unemployment, even schools facing huge financial challenges. MAT boards who actively sponsor schools in these difficulties will be offended to read this report.

As for professionalism – every school I see, both academy and maintained, is attended to by staff who, across the board, are professional, polite, and hard-working. This is the last of a number of lazy accusations in an ill-thought-out piece that prioritises narrative over truth.

So next time, when we have a manufactured scandal that wakes us from the end-of-year activities, can it at least be worth our time?

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  1. Mark Watson

    It’s good to see an article that puts across a different perspective than we’re used to on here. Congrats to SchoolsWeek for publishing it.
    I hope that in the future when there’s a relevant article, SchoolsWeek approach Martyn Oliver for a comment to balance out the usual anti-academies-at-any-cost suspects …

  2. “…academisation is not creating a market…”
    It is.
    The principles of the academy system are like those of the Charter School system in the U.S. These are driven by a belief in the value of the market to improve outcomes by allowing competition to drive up standards for all.
    It doesn’t work. Neither the U.K. nor the U.S. has proved that this is a better way of organising mass education.
    However, the success or otherwise of the academies program is not what this article is about. Academies have not introduced a ‘quasi-market’ to our education system because Martyn Oliver says so. There are many, many books written all about the marketising of education in the U.K. and the U.S.
    It seems we must put up with the academies program whilst simultaneously believing that it’s got nothing to do with market principles. Mark Watson, what exactly do you find refreshing about Martyn Oliver’s ‘different perspective’?

    • Mark Watson

      Apologies if you thought I wasn’t clear – what I find refreshing about his perspective is that it is different.
      We have more than enough examples of articles from SchoolsWeek criticising academy trusts, and the overwhelming majority of posters seem to be inherently anti-academies, so it’s good to hear from someone who puts forward a counter-argument from the other side of the coin.
      Numerous articles from SchoolsWeek contain comments or quotes from opposition politicians, union leaders, and “anti academy campaigners”, all of whom have the same knee-jerk response. Rarely do we get exposed to comments from people who might make a case on behalf of academies.

    • Mark Watson

      I’d also take exception to your repetition of the misleading trope linking academies and US charter schools.
      Yes there are similarities, in that both educate children.
      However there is a massive and profound difference between them. The main principle and defining characteristic of US charter schools is that they generate profit which is extracted from the education sector into someone’s back pocket. With no comment on that as a principle, that is fundamentally opposite to the academies system.
      An academy trust is a charity which is set up under both charitable law and its specific constitution so that those individuals involved in running it (the ‘members’ and ‘trustees’) cannot profit from their position.
      Do some individuals break the rules? Of course they do, just as fraud happens in every single sector be it local government, the NHS, MPs, accountancy, banking etc. That’s an issue with people, not the structure.
      The majority of articles on academy trusts (understandably given the media’s focus on sensationalist headlines) seem to focus on those academy trusts set up by individuals or organisations which provide educational services (think Bright Tribe) where there is an inherent and understandable suspicion. What seems to be overlookedis that the overwhelming majority of academy trusts don’t have a ‘sponsor’ or an organisation behind them and are run by individuals giving up their time and efforts for no remuneration and whose sole interest is to improve the educational outcomes for the children in ‘their’ schools.

      • Mark, thank you for your thoughtful responses. You are right to draw attention to the differences that exist between Charter schools and our own academies; we have not gone as far down this marketised route as the US.
        My original post took exception to Martyn Oliver stating that “…academisation is not creating a market…” Even though you are right to point out that the system here is not the same as in the US the principles underlying it certainly are i.e. they are equivalent or parallel systems. To deny that this is marketization looks inaccurate when you consider that we have had, for some time in this country an organisation called ‘The Centre for Market Reform of Education’ (set up in 2013). It changed its name recently to The Centre for the Study of Market Reform of Education (CSMRE). That is to say the reform has now happened, it is the market that shapes our system of schools and universities. Janet Downs makes the same point and has helpfully included a link to a lengthy document actually entitled ‘The development of quasi-markets in secondary education’.
        You have expressed concern with what you consider to be the biased content of Schools Week and I understand that you enjoyed the balance of an article promoting academies as a model of educational provision. However, I found the article frustrating because it is denying something that is undeniably true: for better or for worse we have shifted our education system in England towards a much more marketised model. It’s hard to make meaningful progress in any discussion about education in England if this simple fact is denied.
        I do not suggest, as a conspiracy theorist might, that Martyn Oliver is deliberately muddying the waters by denying the reality of this marketisation; of course I assume that he genuinely doesn’t consider academies to be part of a process of marketisation. It would be very interesting to hear from him on this because it baffles me that he can think in this way; we are living through the market-led reform of education and it is openly stated as such by people who believe that the market model leads to the best outcomes for all of us (consider the CSMRE). It is also recognised as such by those who are opposed to it because of their belief that the market has limited value when dealing with social issues like health and education.

        • Mark Watson

          There is a market within education and there always has been, just like in every other sector from health to defence.
          Schools (whether academies, community or independent) buy goods and services from private sector companies (be it books or new buildings).
          On another angle society has changed when it comes to personal choice. We are no longer happy to send out children to the school a faceless civil servant tells us to, to not have a choice over where go when we want a hospital etc. Schools, like everything else in today’s world, are competing for customers (aka pupils).
          Marketisation also carries with it implications of profiteering, which is not a part of the academies system, (not to say it doesn’t happen, but as I said it happens everywhere).
          And I’m sorry, basing an argument on the fact that an independent think tank has changed its name doesn’t really hold any water. (By the way, the think tank you’re referring to is now called the Centre for Education Economics – is that relevant?)
          If I were to move into an area which only had LA schools, I’d still get to choose where to apply to send my child. Academies didn’t introduce this, so why do you think they’re the culprit?
          Martin Oliver did not deny there is a market, he said that academisation did not CREATE a market.

          • I was reminded of your statement here that “…we are no longer happy to send our children to the school a faceless civil servant tells us to…” when I was reading about Multi Academy Trust takeovers in yesterday’s Guardian: “The takeover process is overseen by eight regional school commissioners. “Parents have no right to a consultation on who should sponsor their school, let alone any kind of veto or vote,” says (Laura) McInerney (former editor of Schools Week) “The meetings where decisions are made are secretive, with only the barest of minutes.” It seems that parents will have little influence over the provision of their children’s education under both LEAs and MATs!
            By pointing to the Centre for Market Reform of Education I was illustrating the fact that the introduction of academies and free schools has created a marketised system, as opposed to one overseen by a democratically accountable LEA. Evidently Martyn Oliver does not believe this.
            Today at my school the governors handed out prizes to the children; one 70 year old governor had not only attended the school as a child but her mother had taught at the school too. This is a community school. I don’t want to idealise that community but I do want to draw attention to the difference between that and a school overseen by a MAT. By introducing this marketised model we chip away at one pillar of our democratic way of organising society. Public institutions are locally rooted; in the case of schools this means that governors are usually parents, local notables and so on. To me this seems like a good idea. MATs don’t have to function like that.
            You write that “…schools, like everything else in today’s world, are competing for customers (aka pupils)”. As far as I can tell the main difference between our viewpoints is that you see this as a good thing and do not see any reason to change it. I would argue that this business model should not be applied to education; there are countries around the world that do not do so. I’m glad that there are. Once again, thank you for responding. I have enjoyed our correspondence and I’m delighted that it has not descended into abuse and sarcasm!

  3. Policies since the late 1980s, embraced by both Labour, the Coalition and the Tories, have introduced a ‘quasi-market’ in education in England. This, among other things, pitches school against school to maximise the number (and, regrettably, the ‘quality’) of pupils attending. A useful summary, written in 2012, is here: https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/The%20Development%20of%20Quasi-Markets%20in%20Education%20final.pdf

  4. Michael

    Two fundamental things create a Market in state education. Firstly parental choice, introduced in 1986. Secondly delegated funding with per pupil funding being the building block of a delegated school budget. Academisation is at best marginally relevant.

    I would like someone to put forward an alternative to parental choice. I would also like to see an argument against delegated budgets based on pupil funding. I can remember when parents were told which school they had to go to, like it or lump it. I can also remember when local councils appointed staff and the only delegated budgets were for books and classroom equipment. Does anybody seriously want to go back in that direction?

    Parental choice and delegated budgets are the basis of the market, anti marketeers have a responsibility to put forward their alternatives to those two principles and not get lost in the fog of school structures.

    • During the 1990s and prior to 2010 we had parent choice and local management of schools’ budgets. These policies were improvements over what went before. We did not have Academisation where MATs act like Premier League football clubs, buying and dumping whole schools to improve their league positions. Every school had local governors accountable to their local community and their parents, so they were responsive to what stakeholders wanted. Now we have MAT CEOs who would be better suited to casino banking than educating our children, and children are “off-rolled” if their low attainment is likely to be a PR problem.