Academy chains may be no more than private local authorities, without the accountability

Fiona Millar's picture
For anyone who doesn't read Guardian Education, I am linking to my piece today which looks at how academy chains work. I have spent several weeks visiting chains, talking to people who work for them, reading their accounts on the Charity Commission website and it has proved illuminating.

  • Firstly because it confirmed my suspicions that, far from being autonomous, academies in 'chains' may actually be more tightly controlled than maintained schools within a local authority 'family'.

  • Secondly because I hadn't quite twigged that academy chains have blanket funding agreements with the Secretary of State so they receive all the money and then effectively delegate to the schools via governing bodies that they appoint. They then claw back a proportion in exactly the same way as local authorities have been condemned for doing, but without any clear accountability about how the money is spent.  Remember once upon a time sponsors gave money to their academies, well now they take it away from them!

  • Finally there are big bucks involved here - just look at the figures. One well known academy chain has seen its income rise from £3million to £117 million in five years. Five percent of £100 million plus is a healthy income for any organisation, charitable or not, and there seems to be little or no control over how much they pay their own senior staff. E-ACT 'Director General' Sir Bruce Liddington a former Labour Schools Commissioner, left the DFES for a job with one of the chains to which his Department had been commissioning schools. He now earns almost £300,000 including pensions and bonuses, for running 11 schools. That is more than most local authority chief execs are frequently condemned for earning although they manage multi billion pound budgets. It is also more than Michael Gove earns. As Helen Flynn pointed out recently here on this site, Sir Bruce is already talking about the ability for schools to make a profit.

The outgoing  Chief Inspector of Schools, Christine Gilbert, has said that chains of schools should be inspected in the same way that local authorities are. We believe they should also publish their own budgets in more detail, and the budgets of their schools , which still aren't included in the tables released recently by the DFE.

Many of the early academy sponsors may have come into the academy business with well meaning , philanthropic motives, but the way is clearly open to others who may not have the same moral purpose, which may be why so many smaller trusts are being set up, eager to get their hands on free schools which they can use to build a brand and expand.

We would be interested in hearing from parents and teachers in academy chains about what life is like in these schools and whether they are really any different to working in schools that are part of a local authority.

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Francis Gilbert's picture
Tue, 05/07/2011 - 20:23

This is a very important article because I'm sure this is the way things are going. Chains will take over many schools and I think you're right, they'll be much more controlling than the LAs. And will they have the pupils' best interests at heart or their own profits? And if they go wrong, what then? Chaos beckons. I'm aware I'm laying myself open to criticism here because I've supported my local school to become an Academy, but I do feel that this whole Academy programme needs much better regulation. Clearly, a sensible politician is going to have sort out the mess Gove leaves behind and put in place proper accountability mechanisms for these schools.

Nigel Ford's picture
Tue, 05/07/2011 - 21:00

Will the same funding arrangement for academy chains also extend to free school chains, like the Yorkshire Nationwide Schools (YNS) which Keith Turvey alerted us to?

Sarah Dobbs's picture
Tue, 05/07/2011 - 23:00

My anger is that an entire generation of kids are being used as guinea pigs in a mad man's half baked, ill thought out, dogmatic, illogical, unwanted, ineffective, immoral and undemocratic ideas. Where is the thought, the planning, the pilot projects? Where is there any attempt to alleviate, or even discover, the unintended consequences of the policy? Or is the policy intended to cause total chaos?

Ben Taylor's picture
Wed, 06/07/2011 - 00:00

Yes good points

I would be interested in how much more choice or "ability to choose" parents have in areas with academies

This should be the balancing force which prevents monopolies which are able to pay excessive profits or individual salaries

I don't understand why the unions have not supported structures like LLP, cooperatives, and other kinds of mutual bodies for teachers and other co-professionals and workers, also including parents as stakeholders etc. This is an opportunity for "workers" to control the money and give the parents and children what they want. After all look at many other trades and professions - I assume teachers consider themselves as professionals

Sarah Dobbs's picture
Wed, 06/07/2011 - 05:13

I do take those points about co-operatives on board, and for a while felt quite positive about them. For me, the whole problem is the sustainability of the academies policy under the current Academies Act. The future relationship between local authorities and academies on quite a small, co-operative scale has been so badly planned for to make it virtually impossible for this to work at the moment. Local authorities, and individual small scale academies themselves, have very little stability right now and are currently unable to engage in any meaningful long term financial planning. To expect any group of parents / individuals to take on this level of risk when they have no way of replicating the vast economy of scale of a LA is naive.
The longer the Louth campaign goes on, the more convinced I am that Gove has quite deliberately set the scene up to make it as hard as possible for small scale academies and free schools to flourish. And as you know, once a school has converted there is no way back. So where do you go if running such a complex and dynamic organisation such as a school proves a step too far for well meaning but already over stretched parents and communities? Right into the arms of the sponsors, I believe.
What angers me the most is the idea that a local authority; owning the school's land, providing the back room services and support, while delegating down day to day decision making to an elected governing body comprised of elected stakeholders and the schools' management was anything other then a stable and effective model. Does not this model exemplify all required economy of scale AND co-operative governance? It was not broken, until Gove came along and smashed it.

Adrian Elliott's picture
Wed, 06/07/2011 - 07:49

I thought this was an excellent article by Fiona which clarified a number of issues of which I was only partly aware.

I was struck by the hypocrisy of those constantly drawing attention to to the high salaries of chief executives in local government whilst the head of an academy chain,with only a small number of schools, is earning far more than almost any local government officer. Ultimately, his salary is still being paid by the tax payer but that doesn't seem to concern the Taxpayers Alliance,Eric Pickles and certainly not Michael Gove.

On the other hand,if the money is coming from savings from what would have been spent on childrens' education, who cares?

Ros Coffey's picture
Wed, 06/07/2011 - 12:48

An excellent article Fiona.

I guess what frightens me the most is that these Academy chains will become like Health Care Providers in the US, telling us what can be taught and how...

Geoffrey's picture
Wed, 06/07/2011 - 13:21

Why are you talking about stuff like this? You are the partner of someone who advocated war just to improve his career. War is not good for kids. They don't have careers to consider, they're not like you. They get very upset when their sister gets run over by a bunch of laughing americans in a tank. Very upset. No skin off your nose, I'm sure, you've done alright from it, but don't even begin to tell me what's good for kids.

Julia Johnson's picture
Wed, 06/07/2011 - 13:55

Why does this article need to be so personal? Surely principles are what count. This is journalism at its most unpleasant.

Geoffrey's picture
Wed, 06/07/2011 - 18:11

I'm saying, that, in my opinion, the author cares so little for her principles that, in private, she almost certainly shows nothing but ridicule and contempt for those who embrace them. Next time you look her in the eye, and you feel a bit confused, just imagine what a dreadful, boring sort of person she thinks you are. She's Campbell's partner. The schools she advocates are state-sponsored child abuse. They are rubbish. Fiona is saying they are wonderful. She is, of course, entitled to both this opinion and any she might hold in private.

Allan Beavis's picture
Wed, 06/07/2011 - 21:47

What I found most chilling in Fiona Millar’s excellent report in the Guardian was the realisation that, with so many schools being handed over to the tight control of a handful of Edu chains and much responsibility devolved away from government, state education, in the sense that it is administered, maintained and nourished by the state with funds provided by the taxpayer, will first become rudderless then redundant.

State education as we have known it will disappear, to be stealthily replaced not just by a landscape of Academies each homogenised according to the ideology and agenda of the chain they belong to, but by what Lord Adonis calls a “federation of state-private schools” – Academies sponsored by private schools and taking responsibility for the governance and leadership of the school.

A patchwork quilt of schools will spring up, apparently set free by the state but now in bondage to the absolute administrative, financial, pedagogic and political power of the venture philanthropists, which is what Edu chains and the Academy-sponsoring private schools will be, perhaps even in competition with each other.

The wholesale deregulation of state schools leaves them vulnerable to abuse, with little or no remedy of redressing any wrongdoing, since the state has removed itself from such responsibilities. And there is something else to fear. With no local accountability and little in the way of government supervision, the directors of, and investors in, Academies – and in particular the ones owned by chains – can effectively decide what social transformation they want to engineer and then design and fund projects to further implement their vision.

Private schools, currently losing money as parents drift away, no longer able to afford the fees, will do the same thing, weaving their narrow ideology and world view into the schools they run so that, eventually, selection and segregation will have been achieved. Academies = good. Academies run by chains = even better. Academies run by a private school = the apex. Perhaps by that point, the bar will have been raised even higher to reflect the generosity and superiority of private sector sponsorship that stand-alone Academies will become the secondary moderns of the next generation.

I don’t suppose the right wing want us to prematurely uncover what I am beginning to really believe what education reform is really about. And that is that this form of philanthropy is a cover to prepare and get the public used to state schools being managed and run by quasi-private sector organisations so that when the real commercialisation of schools begin, no one will barely notice. State education will no longer be for the benefit of the citizens, but for profit making companies to buy massive influence in what our children are taught and how they are taught.

Lord Adonis, in his speech which I referred to above, mentions visiting Petchey Academy in Hackney, a shining example of a school transforming the lives of children in a deprived area of Hackney. I visited the school myself last year, at an open day for prospective parents, and was also struck by the transformative atmosphere of the school, but perhaps not in the way that Adonis meant. The strict adherence to school regulations, the performing of the “Petchey Song” and the mind numbing chanting of league table and test results, coupled with the clinical and stifling atmosphere of the school made me think at the time of “The Stepford Wives”. Perhaps the engineering of social transformation is already underway.

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