In 2000 the Blair government established academies which are public schools that are managed by private sponsors – including businesses, religious organizations, educational trusts and individuals – who contribute £2 million towards the initial capital costs of establishing the school or converting it from a normal public school. The government typically pays more than £25 million towards these schools. Yet sponsors own the school buildings and the land they are on, appoint the majority of the governing board, appoint the head teacher, dictate the curriculum and manage the school. In other words sponsors own and run these publicly-funded schools in return for a relatively small contribution.
More recently, prime minister Gordon Brown relaxed the requirement for sponsors to contribute £2 million and made it possible for universities and private schools to advise academies rather than sponsor them. However academies were founded on the belief that the private sector would be able to do education better and the desire to promote closer links between schools and business.
The new conservative government is just as keen on academies and has facilitated their expansion with the Academies Act 2010 which enables existing state schools to convert to academies, and enables "the Secretary of State to require schools that are eligible for intervention to convert into academies".
Corporate sponsors for academies are supposed to be motivated either by philanthropy, the desire to promote their corporate image, or the “desire to promote business values” in schools. Academies are like private schools except they are mainly funded by the government, cannot charge fees, and if the school is labelled as ‘failing’ (in terms of test results, department inspections and enrolments), the local educational authority (LEA) will be able to intervene.
The Labour government envisaged that 200 privately-sponsored Academy schools, many of them newly established schools, will be running by 2010, around 60 in London boroughs, all in areas where poorer students are concentrated. And indeed there were 203 by January 2010 with 100 more expected by September that year and another 100 proposed. The new conservative government is just as keen on academies and hope to expand them further.
However, increasing numbers of teachers in England are opposing academies and school choice as a way of improving educational standards in deprived areas and a majority of teachers are now opposed.
Academies have greater freedom than normal schools including:
They can also appoint the principal, employ staff, and set teacher pay and conditions.
They have replaced ‘failing’ schools on the assumption that the enthusiasm of sponsors and the freedom from government regulation – in terms of curriculum and teacher pay and conditions – will enable them to produce a better quality education.
This freedom from regulation has led to several court cases against the opening of academies on the grounds that they deprive parents of the right to have a say in their children’s education and to appeal if their child is excluded from the school. Some academy contracts, require only one parent on the board of governors.
The extra funding which these schools attract, not just the sponsors £2 million but the more substantial government funding, enables them to have new buildings, extra facilities and more staff. This extra spending gives the schools an advantage which leads some to ask whether the extra funding might not have been better spent on the failing schools the academies are replacing without handing over control to wealthy sponsors. In this way they would have remained publicly accountable and under the auspices of the democratically elected local educational boards.
The building of academies have tended to go over budget, on average by £3m so that they are more expensive than other secondary schools.
What is more, sponsors have been slow to pay up their £2m share. In 2006 the Guardian newspaper noted that most of the sponsors had not paid their promised £2m. There were also allegations, “being investigated by Scotland Yard”, that some sponsors had been promised peerages and honours in return for their £2m. The situation was little better at the end of 2009 when the newspaper reported that 13 out of 90 academies had not received any money from sponsors and only two thirds of the contracted payments had been paid since the program began. "Those running large chains of academies in some cases have so far paid only a fraction of the amounts pledged."
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