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Academies – an accountability sinkhole?

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Academies – an accountability sinkhole?

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This is the third post of a serialisation of Dr Andrew Wilkins‘ paper Professionalizing school governance: the disciplinary effects of school autonomy and inspection on the changing role of school governors. It has been edited for brevity and ease of reading online, references are hyperlinked inline where available, otherwise most footnote references have been removed. The article with full references is available at dx.doi.org/10.1080/02680939.2014.941414 and it is reproduced on the Modern Governor blog with permission of the publishers.

Prior to this post, you may wish to read:

  1. Good governance – a modality of state power? and
  2. Two trends in school governance

Academisation: accountability deficit?

The launch of city academies in 2000 under New Labour’s ‘Third Way’ philosophy (Giddens 1998) heralded a new phase in the neoliberalisation of state education. Designed to enlist the help of private sponsors to offer ‘radical and innovative challenges to tackling educational disadvantage’ (DfES 2005a, 29), the city academies project granted schools and their sponsors powers to bypass local democratic processes (Beckett 2007; Hatcher and Jones 2006; Millar 2010) by circumventing the scope of local government steering and control, including the electoral mandate of local councillors to monitor and intervene in schools. As a result some commentators lambasted the academies program as a ‘loss to the community’ (Unison 2010). Between September 2002 and May 2010, 210 academies opened in England under (New) Labour (BBC 2012). In May 2010, under the leadership of the Coalition government, new legislation was rolled out making it possible for all good and outstanding schools – including, for the first time, primary and special schools – to opt out of LEA control and become administratively self-governing. According to recent statistics obtained by the DfE in June 2014 (DfE 2014a), 3924 state secondary and primary schools have converted to academy status, 1105 schools have opened as academies under the guidance of a sponsor, and 252 academy conversions are due to open on or around September 2014. Statistics disclosed by the DfE in May 2014 also indicate that 174 free schools have been established with a further 120 proposed to open in 2014 and beyond (DfE 2014b).

Unfortunately, the transfer of power and ownership from central government to institutions and agents (evocative of Prime Minister David Cameron’s vision of a ‘Big Society’) does not guarantee an improved system for monitoring and delivering public services, nor does it guarantee improved accountability or transparency. (The government, however, is convinced by PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results that there is a relationship between school autonomy and school improvement, see DfE 2014c). When a school chooses to convert to academy status (or is forcibly transferred under the convert bullying of DfE-employed ‘academy brokers’, see Holehouse 2013), the GB and/or trustees adopt legal responsibility for the financial and educational performance of the school as well as responsibility for how well the GB conducts itself (now the judgment of Ofsted, see Ofsted 2014).

With local government support services being scaled back or withdrawn entirely to cope with huge budget cuts (£11.6bn for the period 2015–2016, see BBC 2013a), there is a real and present danger of a regulatory gap. Only recently, the DfE announced that 14 academy chains (including E-ACT, Academies Enterprise Trust, Academy Transformation Trust, and Prospects Academies Trust) would not be eligible to sponsor any more state schools due to a poor track record of falling educational standards and financial mismanagement (Paton 2014). (A drop in the pond when you consider as of February 2014 there are 569 academy sponsors in existence in England, see GUK 2014).

The DfE itself is beginning to show signs of insecurity over their lack of powers to intervene in the running of free schools and academies, as revealed in a leaked document uncovered by the Guardian (Adams and Mansell 2014). Media stories from 2013 offer further examples of the problems faced by a regulatory gap in the emerging school system: Camden Juniors primary school forced into Harris academy takeover despite overwhelming opposition from consultees (Sleigh 2013); evidence of financial mismanagement at King’s Science Academy (BBC 2013b); Ofsted’s damning report of the Al-Madinah free school (Adams 2013); parents in special needs row with Harris academy chain (Mansell 2013); and evidence of related party transactions by the Academies Education Trust (Boffey 2013).

Questions for governors & governing bodies

  • As the tide of local authority support services and influence recedes, what issues does this raise for your school in terms of the local strategic direction provided for rather than by the governing body?
  • Given the recent hints from central government giving strong direction & prominence to the roles of  Regional School Commissioners in enforcing changes in the leadership of schools – both in governance and headteacher posts – if there has been a recent shift in the government view of the role of RSCs in local control and monitoring, what implications might this have for schools in your area?
  • Does your school work with other local schools – within a federation, a trust, a chain, or even informally – to improve governance and reinforce accountability?

Part 4:  Supporting autonomous, professionalised schools


Image: WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT? by nolifebeforecoffee licensed under CC BY 2.0


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