The academy system the government brought in in 2000 was a knee-jerk reaction to something not entirely its own fault – the dumbing down of children over three decades through the education they received or more often that they failed to receive, not least because the children themselves have increasingly blocked it out and have been allowed to become anti-academic whilst parents and teachers alike look on in dismay.
Richard Hatcher asked the question, in 2006:
What are Academies for? To solve the problem of low levels of attainment in socially deprived areas, as the government says? My answer is yes, but it raises the question of how a small number of schools – only 200, perhaps a few more – can solve a problem that goes much wider.
To act as pathbreakers for business control of schools? Yes, again, but the same question – how can a small number of schools change a whole school system? Are there enough sponsors with £2million, and what will they get out of it?
I think the answer to all these questions lies in the role of Academies in the 14-19 vocational agenda. The first wave of Academies was launched before the 14-19 policy in 2005 but I think it’s clear that now they are increasingly being assimilated into it.
Civitas have said, of the academies:
Some academies which showed a fast improvement rate in their published headline GCSE scores were using these examinations to boost their results. But because academies are exempt from Freedom of Information rules they are not obliged to release the breakdown of their results.
[Letters to principals] did indeed [in some cases] reveal a high number of vocational qualifications and a low number of academic qualifications achieving grades A* to C. The range of subjects studied also appeared limited.
Only 43% of principals responded to the request to publish results.
There was, of course, trouble right from the outset. The government offered all sorts of incentives [including Des Smith’s honours offer] but:
Even with this sort of inducement, sponsors proved very hard to find. A few expressed an interest, only to withdraw as they saw the depth of local hostility. Those who stayed were remarkably reluctant actually to part with cash. In May 2006, the Guardian reported that most of them had not paid the £2m. Four academies that had been open for nearly a year had not received a penny from their sponsor. With 27 academies up and running, sponsors had paid up only £26m.
It’s partly for this reason that, [in 2006], the government suddenly announced a revolution in the way the academy programme is run. Sponsors would no longer have to put any money at all upfront. Instead they are invited to make “endowments” over the years.
One of the main problems is the admission of students – the Sutton Trust reported:
PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) records that GCSE attainment has tended to have improved at a greater rate in Academies than the national average and amongst similar schools. The National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee evaluations also broadly praised the progress in GCSE attainment in Academies.
However, rises in achievement have coincided with a decline in the proportion of disadvantaged pupils in Academies and there are still considerable concerns about attainment in some Academies.
The 2007 GCSE results indicate that the majority of Academies (26 out of 36 with results in 2007), including those that have been open for at least four years, still do not meet the National Challenge target of having at least 30% of pupils achieving five GCSEs A*-C (including English and maths). Furthermore, only just over half (12 out of the 20 Academies with two years of results in 2007) improved on this measure from the previous year.
The essential problem is that they were set up by Blair and though supported by other parties, no one trusts the government’s main motivation, which appears to be to privatize all failing schools and get them off their hands. Nu-Labour have always been mesmerized by the efficacy of private enterprise – there was Harman’s famous quote about business not tolerating failure and therefore it was good to have business involved.
Labour see this simply as a source of money to ease the fallout over their own incompetence, meaning its loss of billions due to weird schemes it’s bought into, on dubious and lucratively recompensed recommendations.
In the end, academies are a philosophical question. Certainly they do nothing to improve the lot of the anti-intellectual deprived all about them but they do provide pockets of academic value dotted across the country. In short, they are an attempt to provide what the grant maintained schools also aimed to provide and one of the ways they could do that and continue to attract funding was through academic results, the bane of all independent schools and the only way to achieve that was to control admissions and tailor the subjects taken so that pupils would not fail.
The charges of dumbing down therefore have some substance. Schools which instead tolerate only high academic standards are on a hiding to nothing in their early years because there are going to be many failures and therefore their place on the league tables is going to be wonky at best. Eventually, the only pupils coming through are those the school deems might possess the “right stuff” to pass – the school will do the rest.
Whether all this would act as an incentive for the disadvantaged ASBO’s parents to get their kid into such a school is one thing, whether the school would even look at that ASBO for admission is another. Frankly, no schools with aspirations want troublemaking anti-academics in their midst.
Then there is the “what’s the point” factor. There are fewer and fewer business start-ups, less and less incentive under this tax regime and draconian restrictions to do so and so who is going to staff the remaining pockets of free enterprise in the UK? Clearly the independent school graduates and those of the academies.
The demoralization of state schools as a result of the socialist curricula, the pursuit of -isms instead of academic excellence, the lack of spine in the teaching profession in refusing to demand high standards in the liberal arts tradition, the blocking of tried and tested methodology in favour of open plan ideology, the rise of the new anti-intellectual internet culture and so on and so on – all have contributed to the dumbing down and bestialization of youth, turning them into the long term unemployable.
Academies are a positive rather than a negative idea but the age old problem of elitism will always crop up. It always has. Even in schools which used to stream – the more able and committed in the upper stream – the nature of human beings was being recognized but in this society of false-constructs today, one is not allowed to acknowledge basic human nature.
It’s possible that when the academies become numerous enough, almost in parity to the state sector, then the two tier system will act as sufficient incentive, through parental [read political] pressure for the whole socialist curriculum and teacher training admissions and methodology in the state system to be replaced with proper instruction in the traditional manner.
The currently socialized teachers would then have the option of either adjusting to the traditional methodology which saw British Academia become the envy of the world, going off to mutter in the corner or else moving into some other field of work which will have them.
There’ll still be academic failures but the sheer numbers would be reduced to a more societally sustainable level.
I can’t see any other way to turn around the dire state of British education in the next ten years.