For the Abolition of Academies (and other connected institutions)

Kirsty Morrin

For the past eight years I have researched, written about and argued against academisation in English schooling. I have done ethnographic fieldwork in an academy with an ‘entrepreneurship specialism’, considered networks of elite actors investing in the Academies Programme, and looked at negotiations with and resistance to academisation.

The focus of this post is four images that were produced by illustrator Miriam Sugranyes as part of a collaboration growing from an ESRC post-doctoral fellowship I completed. At the centre of our work together were four questions concerning English academy schools and the academies programme more generally; What are academies? Why do they exist? How do they work (or not)? And why does this matter? The images in this post are these questions and answers visualised.

What are academies?

They are state sponsored, ‘privatised’ schools

Illustration: Miriam Sugranyes

In England, academies are state funded, independent and semi-autonomous schools. You might have heard them referred to in a number of ways over the years as city academies, free schools, studio schools or university technology colleges. Currently there are 9180 academies (with more in the pipeline), that oversee the education of 4-19 year olds, and over three quarters of secondary school provision has academy status.

Some schools choose to become academies, and others must convert, compelled by Ofsted and central government. All new state schools that open are academies. For those forced into conversion, sponsorship is necessary, and ‘public-private partnerships’ have emerged. Sponsorship comes from selected charities and philanthropists, faith communities, businesses and entrepreneurs, universities and educational foundations. All final decisions on the selection of a sponsor are centralised. Although there has been some localisation of the academies programme in the implementation of Regional Commissioners in many ways this is just the very visible hand of the centralised state. If commissioners are the hand, then sponsorships have been the steady foot, and public schooling is where these ‘public-private partnerships’ have found a renewed stomping ground.

In fact, the term ‘public-private partnership’ is flawed. Instead it is more useful to think of ‘privatisation’ when we speak of academies. Although academies are not run ‘for economic profit’ as such, processes of consultation, organisation, choices of curriculum, ownership of land, decisions on funding and pay have been confined to narrowed and undemocratic forms of private control (for discussion see Warwick Mansell). In my own research I have highlighted undemocratic consultations processes and Multi Academy Trust Monopolies. Academisation has caused a new bubble of state funded, inflated positions and pay, that take away from public funds for schooling and students. From 2018-19 the top paid MAT CEO earned £450,000. This is the privatisation of state funded education, and it is ever expanding and permeating.

Why do they exist?

Through neocolonial political economies

Illustration: Miriam Sugranyes

The academies programme is part of a global system of privatising educational initiatives. For the last three decades there has been extensive incorporation of donors, sponsorship and privatised educational management organisations in public schooling. Other examples include the Charter system in the US, Sweden’s ‘free school’ (Friskolar) movement, Chile’s Private Subsidised schools, Independent Public Schools in Australia, and private-public educational institutions in Canada and Germany.

There is no single realisation of a privatised public school, and they operate across very different environments. There are however a number of commonalities, including emphasis on ‘choice’, school competition, autonomy and philanthropic intervention. These so-called ‘neoliberal reforms’, are underpinned by the political discourse that these changes are for the ‘public good’, and are necessary and equitable.

Public education has long been tied to the market and philanthropic agendas. Often systems of public education were founded through the civic philanthropy of religious organisations and funded by merchants and ‘businessmen’. Often the money they used to fund these ‘good will’ projects was made through the trade and use of enslaved people, a fact often wilfully ignored in public discourse. Philanthropy in the current context is realised in both high levels monetary investment (see Gates Foundation in the US), and no monetary investment at all (see the academies programme in England). In the US Charter system new forms of venture philanthropy have emerged, seeking to ‘invest’ in, and create new economies of education. English academy sponsors now do not have to provide any capital contribution, but it could still be argued that billionaires and businesses are still making entrepreneurial investments. Evidence of conflicts of interest, the outsourcing of school services, and financial mismanagement give us some idea of potential, financialised motives; and as academy sponsors are given the land their institutions stand on for 125 years upon take-over, and this must remain a site for close scrutiny.

In short then, this ‘privatised’ educational shift is a highly political venture but political cross-party consensus has seen these initiatives ‘depoliticised’ (see Gunter). We must re-politicise or look to politics elsewhere, that see these processes as neocolonial and financialised practice in the present (see Lipman).

How do they work (or not)?

As ideological and cultural ‘intervention’

Illustration: Miriam Sugranyes

Academy sponsors no longer need to provide any capital contribution to the programme. They are however responsible for the performance and finances of their schools and providing a ‘clear educational vision’ for their institutions. In those schools graded ‘unsatisfactory’ by Ofsted, and coerced into academy conversion, a large proportion of sponsorship intervention is focused on the cultural capacity (or ‘deficiency’) of students, parents and the place and space of the school.

Cultural interventions-as-academy-visions are sold as necessary but have often been dreamed up in an ill-defined and unevidenced past cultural ‘deficit’ in places and people. Focused often on instilling good behaviours, determination and high aspirations it is also hard to show accurately how these have improved schooling conditions and outcomes, or not.

One such example of this is in the academy sponsorship at the centre of my research. This foundation has an educational ethos and vision that is based on the virtues and benefits of an entrepreneurial education. At the time of conversion, the founding sponsor wrote in a local newspaper that the ‘status quo’ for the people of the town was ‘a life on benefits’ and ‘a culture of low aspirations’. He went on to say that through an ‘entrepreneurial education’ he would create ‘successful and responsible citizens’. The school has had academy status since 2006, and although performance was at a ‘satisfactory’ rate in 2013, when looking now at the same ‘objective’ measures used to convert the school, it is now ‘failing’ again. Not only this, the sponsorship has since formed a Multi Academy Trust and runs all high school provision in the town. Three (of four) ‘entrepreneurial’ schools in the town were graded ‘unsatisfactory’ in 2018.

Measures of success and failure generally are fickle, but it is the manipulation, selective application and shifting nature of ‘objective criteria’ by which schools are held that makes them both ideological and ignorant. This process often sees the continued reform and re-brokering of these initiatives rather than the abolition of a failed schooling agenda. We must be able to hold both government and institutions to democratic account, and this is not possible in the current context.

Why does this matter?

Because they make inequalities worse, not better.

Illustration: Miriam Sugranyes

The emphasis on cultural interventions in sponsorship visions are problematic in their assumptions, application and projected outcomes. Their foundations are not built on evidence but rather stigmatised and moralising assumptions of working-class places and peoples.

In practice the entrepreneurial educational vision is realised through: compulsory entrepreneurial lessons, a start-up initiative and ‘real-world’ experience, and a set of ‘entrepreneurial badges’ awarded for good ‘entrepreneurial behaviour’. Taking the last initiative here the behaviours identified are: determination, passion, creativity, risk taking, problem solving and team work. Not only is the deficit thinking reapplied here, but any future failures are seen to be a problem in the ‘non-entrepreneurial’, pathological make up of individual students.

This case is not alone. There has been increased promotion of enterprise culture within educational policy and reform, and where policy has argued for the benefits of Enterprise for All. How this is operationalised differs, but although now an ‘objectively’ failed agenda, the project has long been heralded a success, it has won numerous prizes for innovation, and been modelled for replication.

In my fieldwork experiences of entrepreneurial education were also differentiated by the raced, gendered and disabled positionalities students and staff, but the individualised and disconnected nature of the programme leave structural and material challenges and conditions all but invisible. The entrepreneurial agenda can be everything and nothing at the same time. The academy vision can simultaneously take on all success and deflect all potential failure.

There is of course a rise in resistance to these programmes and processes from grassroots organisations, parents, and unions. The recent exams scandal and subsequent protests from young people is another example of this growing discontent and anger with education systems. Currently these remain but an ink splatter of reform, the system has never worked properly for some students, and in the academies programme, it never will.

So, what are the alternatives?

I propose the abolition of the academies programme that would not simply see academies re-brokered or reformed, but the very assumptions underpinning their existence and purpose, and those of the education system more generally challenged and reimagined; what are schools? Why do they exist? How do they work? And for whom do they matter?

Abolition’ has been, and is in current public dialogue and consciousness, like many debates before it, through the experience, thinking, writing and work of the many Black and feminist people and scholars (see for example, Davis, Gilmore, Olufemi). In using abolitionist language, I do three things. First, I emplace their arguments specifically in the academies programme. Second, I do so to connect this with ongoing and nuanced debates around the abolition of exams, private schools, police presence in schools (follow here for an upcoming report by Northern Police Monitoring Project and Kids of Colour), and PREVENT; and universities as we know them. Finally, I want to acknowledge my position as a white academic in this context, of my relative powers, and an ongoing recognition of the collective and grassroots origins, embodied labour, pain and sacrifice of the abolitionist movement. This is both a commitment to, a call to other white scholars for continued reflection on these privileges, origins and realities in citations and praxis moving forward.

“Abolition requires that we change one thing: everything”- Gilmore

Kirsty Morrin is a lecturer at the University of Liverpool, her work focuses on education and inequalities. Miriam Sugranyes is an illustrator, she specialises in conceptualising and illustrating social issues and campaigns. You can find Miriam’s work at https://www.miriamsugranyes.com/. This collaboration was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of the project: Educational Investments: Academisation, ‘Entrepreneurial’ Interventions and Inequality. Grant number: ES/S011498/1

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