Book Review: The Great City Academy Fraud – Part 1

Academy Fraud Pic

By Francis Beckett (London: Continuum 2007)

This is another book I managed to pick up from a cheap bookshop, in this case the £3 bookshop in Bristol’s Park Street. Although published nine years ago in 2007, it’s still very acutely relevant, with the plan of the current education minister, Thicky Nicky Morgan, to try to turn most schools into privately run academies. According to the back flap, Beckett was the education correspondent of the New Statesman from 1997 to 2005, and also wrote on education for the Guardian. The book’s strongly informed by the findings of the NUT and other teaching unions, whose booklets against academies are cited in the text. And its a grim read. It’s an important subject, so important in fact, that I’ve written a long review of this book, divided into four section.

Academies: Another Secondhand Tory Policy

Much of New Labour’s threadbare ideology was just revamped, discarded Tory ideas. This was clearly shown before Blair took power in the early 1990s, when John Major’s government dumped a report compiled by the consultants Arthur Anderson. This was immediately picked up, dusted off, and became official New Labour policy. Similarly, PFI was invented by the Tories man with a little list, Peter Lilley, who was upset ’cause private industry couldn’t get its claws into the NHS. This again was taken over by New Labour, and became the cornerstone of Blair’s and Brown’s ideas of funding the public sector. Academies, initially called ‘city academies’, were the same.

Basically, they’re just a revival of the City Technology Colleges set up in the mid 1980s by Thatcher’s education secretary, Kenneth Baker. Baker decided that the best way to solve the problem of failing schools was to take them out of the control of the local education authority, and hand them over to a private sponsor. These would contribute £2 million of their own money to financing the new school, and the state would do the rest. Despite lauding the scheme as innovative and successful, Baker found it impossible to recruit the high profile sponsors in big business he wanted. BP, which is very active supporting community projects, flatly told him they weren’t interested, as the project was ‘too divisive’. Another organisation, which campaigns to raise private money for public projects, also turned it down, stating that the money would best be spent coming from the government. It was an area for state funding, not private. The result was that Baker was only able to get interest for second-order ‘entrepreneurs’, who were very unwilling to put their money into it. From being a minimum, that £2 million funding recommendation became a maximum. And so the scheme was wound up three years later in 1990.

After initially denouncing such schemes, New Labour showed its complete hypocrisy by trying out a second version of them, the Education Action Zones. Which also collapsed due to lack of interest. Then, in 2000, David Blunkett announced his intention to launch the academy system, then dubbed ‘city academies’, in 2000 in a speech to the Social Market Foundation. Again, private entrepreneurs were expected to contribute £2 million of their money, for which they would gain absolute control of how the new school was to be run. The taxpayer would provide the rest. Again, there were problems finding appropriate sponsors. Big business again wouldn’t touch it, so the government turned instead to the lesser businessmen, like Peter Vardy, a car salesman and evangelical Christian. Other interested parties included the Christian churches, like the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church, and evangelical educational bodies like the United Learning Trust. There were also a number of universities involved, such as the University of the West of England here in Bristol, and some sports organisations, like Bristol City Football club. Some private, fee-paying schools have also turned themselves into academies as away of competing with other private schools in their area.

Taxpayers Foot the Bill

While the sponsors are supposed to stump up £2 million, or in certain circumstances, more like £1.5 million, in practice this isn’t always the case. The legislation states that they can also pay ‘in kind’. Several have provided some money, and then provided the rest of their contribution with services such as consultation, estimated according to a very generous scale. For Beckett, this consists of the sponsors sending an aging executive to give his advice on the running of the new school. This particular individual may actually be past it, but the company can’t sack him. So they fob the new school off with him instead. Sometimes, no money changes hands. The Royal Haberdashers’ Society, one of the London livery companies, decided it was going to sponsor an academy. But it already owned a school on the existing site, and so did nothing more than give the site, generously estimate at several millions, to the new academy. Other companies get their money back in different ways, through tax rebates, deductions and the like.

But if the private sponsors are very wary about spending their money, they have absolutely no reservations about spending the taxpayer’s hard-earned moolah. An ordinary school costs something like £20 million to build. Academies cost more, often much more: £25 million, sometimes soaring to £37 million or beyond. Several of the businessmen sponsoring these academies have built massive monuments to their own vanity, using the services of Sir Norman Foster. Foster was, like Richard Rogers, one of the celebrity architects in favour with New Labour, whose ‘monstrous carbuncles’ (@ Charles Windsor) were considered the acme of cool. One of these was called ‘The Learning Curve’, and consisted of a long, curving corridor stretching across a quarter of mile, off which were the individual class rooms. Foster also built the Bexley Business Academy, a school, whose sponsor wanted to turn the pupils into little entrepreneurs. So every Friday was devoted exclusively to business studies, and the centrepiece of the entire joint was a mock stock exchange floor. The school also had an ‘innovative’ attitude to class room design: they only had three walls, in order to improve supervise and prevent bullying. In fact, the reverse happened, and the school had to spend more money putting them up.

Unsuitable Buildings

And some of the buildings designed by the academies’ pet architects are most unsuitable for the children they are supposed to serve. One academy decided it was going to get the local school for special needs children on its site. These were kids with various types of handicap. Their school was not certainly not failing, and parents and teachers most definitely did not want their school closed. But closed it was, and shifted to the academy. The old school for handicapped youngsters was all on the same level, which meant that access was easy, or easier, for those kids with mobility problems. The new school was on two floors. There was a lift, but it could only be used by pupils with a teacher. The parents told the sponsor and the new academy that they had destroyed their children’s independence. They were greeted with complete incomprehension.

HM School ‘Belmarshe’

In other academies, conditions for the sprogs are more like those in a prison. One of the schools, which preceded an academy on its site, had a problem with bullying. The new academy decided to combat that problem, by not having a playground. They also staggered lunch into two ‘brunch breaks’, which were taken at different times by different classes. These are taken in a windowless cafeteria. The result is a joyless learning environment, and the school has acquired the nickname ‘Belmarshe’, after the famous nick.

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