Status anxiety

Why I’m uneasy about academies for all

This is the use of socialist means to achieve Conservative ends in schools

2 April 2016

9:00 AM

2 April 2016

9:00 AM

As someone who believes in limited government, I feel conflicted about universal academisation. I’m a fan of the academies policy because it reduces the involvement of politicians and bureaucrats in taxpayer-funded education, but there’s something a little Stalinist about the state forcing all local-authority schools to become academies. It’s using socialist methods to bring about a conservative goal. It reminds me of that paradox first-year philosophy students struggle with — is it right to force a slave to be free?

Jeremy Corbyn and the teaching unions have decided that this is a good issue for them and are planning a national campaign against ‘forced academisation’. But the emphasis on the word ‘forced’ is curious because that’s the bit of the policy you’d think they’d like. Last week, as I did a tour of TV and radio studios to defend academies, I found myself facing left-wing opponents who were complaining about central government diktat and one-size-fits-all schools. Suddenly, diversity of provision and parental choice had become good things. Hang on, I thought. That’s exactly what I was arguing in 2009. It was as though I had switched places with the anti-education reform campaigner Fiona Millar.

A moment’s reflection reveals that this can’t be what the left really objects to — after all, Labour’s education policy, insofar as it has one, is to restore local-authority control over all taxpayer-funded schools. Given that nearly 70 per cent of state secondaries in England and 15 per cent of primaries are already academies, that would involve almost as much coercion as the measure it opposes. Critics of academies have demanded a uniform system of state provision for decades, so it’s a bit rich for them to complain about the universality of the policy. They’re just annoyed that the monocultural system we end up with won’t be Finland.

But if the left is only pretending to dislike academies for that reason, why does it really dislike them? It’s a bit perplexing, because nearly all the other reasons they put forward are based on misunderstandings.

Corbyn used the phrase ‘asset stripping’ in his speech to the NUT last week, but that’s flat-out wrong. When a school becomes an academy, the land and buildings aren’t transferred from a local authority to a private company. Rather, the freehold is retained by the authority, which offers a lease to the academy or multi-academy trust it’s decided to join. ‘Asset renting’ would be more accurate, but that it have the same ring.

I used the phrase ‘private company’ just now and it’s true that academies and multi-academy trusts are limited companies, but that phrase needs unpacking because Corbyn and his allies use it as a synonym for ‘profit-making’. In fact, academies are a specific type of company more commonly known as ‘charities’ and, as such, they’re prohibited from making profits. So accusing the government of ‘privatising’ state schools makes little sense, unless by that you mean entrusting charities with stewardship of our public education system. Not much of a rallying cry either.

More sophisticated critics admit that academies cannot make profits, but point out that the people who run them can let contracts to profit-making companies. Quite true, but then so can local-authority-run schools. So can NHS hospitals, for that matter. And what’s wrong with that, providing they’re getting value for money? As someone who’s helped set up four academies and is now the CEO of a multi-academy trust, I can assure you that there are strict rules in place to ensure we do get value for money when letting contracts. We’re audited once a year to make sure we comply. That’s more frequently than local-authority schools.

Reluctantly, I’ve come to the conclusion that Corbyn and his allies don’t actually know what an academy is. All they know is they were invented by Tony Blair and that’s good enough. The funny thing is, if they did their homework they’d discover that buried in the fine print of the funding agreements that all academies have to sign are clauses granting the Secretary of State for Education sweeping powers over them, should he or she choose to use them. If Corbyn actually won an election, all he’d have to do is ennoble Fiona Millar and install her in the DfE, and it would be a one-way ticket to the Finland Station. Which is why I’m a bit ambivalent about them.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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Show comments
  • Jonathan Allan

    Toby is wrong all maintained schools are audited once a year and the LA come into my school once a month.

    Plus say the freehold is held privately and they don’t want it to go to an academy what happens then?

  • Sadler Johnson

    Something not mentioned here is curriculum and ethos. A religious ethos and freedom to devise their own curricula will mean the Christian, Jewish and Islamic fundies will have free rein to indoctrinate and radicalise.

    • Anna Bananahammok

      Radicalised Christians and Jews?
      What a danger to world peace.

      • Isaiah

        You are easily confused, Anna Bananamatress
        Christians abolished slavery didn’t they.
        Jews still hold their slaves today who live in Gaza.

        • Anna Bananahammok

          When talking about slavery, one can not leave out Muslims, who trade slaves, keep slaves, disfigure slaves with acid, rape slaves and behead slaves every single day, in at least a dozen of their countries.

          As for Gaza, If Palestinians were ‘slaves’ to Israelis, then Israel would be a sh!!hole just like Gaza is. It definitely should be bombed into a joint Egyptian-Israeli car park eventually – the cockroaches who live there don’t appreciate how lucky they are to still be alive, and have no intention to stabilise economic relations with their neighbours, so…..BOOM.

          • Isaiah

            That adds the kind of clarity I was expecting from you.

          • Anna Bananahammok

            Good. As long as it’s clear that I don’t give a shiite about Gaza.
            You should remember that many don’t. Allah clearly doesn’t either.

          • Isaiah

            Anna, I’ll make a note of that.

    • Ken

      I’m not sure we really need to worry about radicalised Christians and Jews. What unspeakable acts have they been plotting?

      • Sadler Johnson

        Illegal yeshivas? Trojans? Creationism? Steiner eugenics? There are many crazies in the UK never mind the rest of the world.

  • So … Tobes is trying to blame Corbyn for the Academy scam Tobes is so keen on?

  • Ingmar Blessing

    That pen+notebook in his shirt reminds me of somehing:

    On the subject of schooling: Generally there should be more involvement by people who have a professional interest in the pupils later success in their professional life, while getting out the most of them.

    It might help if teachers and their schools receive a bonus of e.g. 2.000 Euro depending on their former pupils situation at age 25:
    -> finished job/university education = bonus * 2
    -> no unemployment record = bonus * 1.5
    -> no contact with the police = bonus * 3
    -> per month unemployment = bonus * 0.9
    -> one year unemployment = bonus * 0.8
    -> sentenced to social work = bonus * 0.7
    -> per month prison = bonus * 0.5
    -> suicide, amok, terrorism, heroin addiction = bonus -1 Million Euro

    This would cost per average pupil about 8.000 Euro, which is expensive, but would also be a divider between good work and bad without ideology. And the money could be used by the school to fund an own office that helps the more problematic ones among the graduates to get into life better.

    In difference to the current version of social services, the connection between success and failure of social measures would be tighter as well as the connection between former pupil and support system.

    PS: Here’s an entirely private market based solution for schools: If you like it and have the cash to pull it off, go ahead, it’s yours!

  • Sargon the bone crusher

    the socialist- collectivist education system comprehensively wrecked British educational standards, and utterly corrupted social vales.
    And this pathetic lilly-livered article writer hasn’t god the balls to want it gone.