Francis Beckett – The Great City Academy Fraud

You expect Beckett to provide a critical analysis of education policy, and this is what he does in The Great City Academy Fraud.  It is a critique of Labour’s Academy programme, examining the reality behind the spin.  While some of the arguments against Acadmies and their performance might be found elsewhere, this is a useful source which tells the stories of some Acadmies, and, it gives us a glimpse of how schools might look in the future with more involvement from businesses.

This book is not new, having being published in 2007.  Since then, of course, there has been a General Election. Labour, who were responsible for City Academies are no longer in power.  However, Beckett’s analysis of City Academies remains an important contribution to debates on school provision, especially so in the context of the Conservatives’ proposed Free Schools.

Academies were introduced by the last Labour Government as a part of their committment to improve educational standards.  Designed to replace ‘failing’ schools, particularly in deprived inner city areas, Academies would be sponsored, by businesses, faith groups, individuals, or charities.  These sponsors were expected to contribute £2 million to the cost of setting up an Academy, estimated at £10 million.  Academies would be outside of the control of LEAs, with running costs payed by the Government.

The book begins by comparing Academies with City Technology Colleges (CTCs).   These were created  by the last Conservative Government in the 1980’s.  They were to be sponsored by and owned by businesses or churches and were to be independent from LEAs.  As they were targeted in deprived urban areas, they were, in particular to be independent from Labour controlled councils.   CTCs were not a success, there was limited interest from any big sponsors, and money was often not forthcoming from those sponsors who did get involved.  In order to prop up the policy, the state then had to fund the CTCs, which had not been the attention.  Additionally, CTCs were more generously funded than other state schools.  The policy was quietly dropped.

At the time, Labour did not support CTCs, promising to take them back into LEA control if they got into power. They did, of course, get into power, in 1997.   However,  in 2000 the Labour Government announced the City Academy programme. 

Beckett sees little distinction between CTCs and Academies.  The mistakes of the CTCs, he claims, were destined to be repeated, the lessons of the failed CTCs not learned.

While Academies were designed to replace ‘failing’ schools, Beckett argues that many schools which were closed, were not, in fact, failing schools, at least by the assessment of Ofsted.  Beckett takes apart the political claims for Academies.  In terms of private sponsorship, only small proportions of the escalating costs of Academies has come from sponsors, and some sponsorship is ‘in kind’, yet the so-called sponsors still own and control the schools while the state continues to fund them.  Then there has been allegations of honours in exchange for so-called sponsorship.  He discusses concerns over the involvement of and motivation of religious organisations.  Unions have been sidelined and timetables changed, with the effect that pupils and teachers don’t get to interact outside the classroom. The buildings too come under scrutiny as not being fit for purpose.  All of this could be overlooked, perhaps, if Academies were shown to work.  Beckett however shows that this has not always been the case, some of the schools they replaced were not failing anyway, and in some Academies attainment has fallen, while others have received damning Ofsted reports.  Where attainment has risen, it is alleged that this is because Acadmies are using GCSE equivalents to ensure they rise in the league tables.  Yet, they have continued to receive generous state funding; if these had been ordinary state comprehensive schools, they would have been closed, and replaced by Academies, according to Beckett.

Beckett’s analysis does have implications for the Conservative’s Free Schools.  These can be started by parents, but in reality are likely to be run by businesses or other organisations.  If they are to be a flagship education policy of the current Government then the pattern from the Academies is likely to be repeated.  They will require generous funding from the Government at the expense of other local state schools.  The businesses, religious organisations or charities which are contracted to run them will have great control over what goes on inside them (not the parents, despite the Conservative promises) yet there will be very little accountability.  The result will be, as Beckett has claimed to have been the case with Acadmies, will be increased educational inequality.

The Great City Academy Fraud is published by Continuum.

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Waterloo Road

The latest series of Waterloo Road is upon our television screens.   For those who have yet to witness this, tune into ITV on a Wednesday evening where you will be able to watch a gritty drama about a Manchester Comprehensive School.   

Now in its fifth series the school has survived threatened closure, a head teacher accused of fraud, arson and, at the end of the last series demolition by a disgruntled parent.  It has tackled a range of issues from cyber bullying, death, teenage pregnancy, HIV, sexuality, Aspergers’ Syndrome, sexual intimidation, murder, alcoholism and illegal adoption, amongst a multitude of other issues.  Most recently, following the latest episode the series has been implicated in promoting a copy cat incident of ethanol abuse among a group of school pupils in Walsall.      The series embodies all that is feared about Comprehensive Schools.  Attainment is below average, aspirations of many of the working class pupils are low, pupils are disruptive, a number of its teachers are lazy and incompetent as well as promiscuous.  In short the school is a ‘dangerous place’.  This is an image of Comprehensive Schools found elsewhere, and has been identified in Sociological research, for example in the work of Diane Reay.

Yet, just how realistic is the representation of reality portrayed in Waterloo Road? 

This current series began with Waterloo Road School having being repaired following the demolition at the end of the last series.  An influx of middle class pupils was in evidence following a ‘merger’ with another school while off-air. The school name ‘Waterloo Road’ remained along with its original pupils wearing the familiar burgundy school uniform, contrasting with the green and blue of ‘John Fosters’, the middle class school.  Unsurprisingly current storylines feature the clash of school cultures polarising the disruptive working class of Waterloo Road with the hard working, well groomed John Fosters pupils.  A dramatised version of the polarisation thesis explored by Hargreaves and others is being played out on our screens.   Surely the LEA and senior management could have foreseen such problems and sought to ease the transition to a new school?  Perhaps they could have looked at the launch of Academies where apparently new schools are launched on the site of an old ‘failing’ school, often incorporating pupils from more than one school which has been closed down. As part of the launch there is a new name, often alongside a new distinctive uniform.  This is well documented and the efforts at rebranding are an attempt to create a new school (or academy) identity and avoid the dominance of one school culture over others.  Perhaps the LEA and staff responsible for Waterloo Road should become more aware of common practices around school mergers?

The suspension of reality goes on:  In the first episode we saw a police officer who appeared incapable of relaying bad news to the children of a murder victim. How did he manage to reach the position of Detective Inspector in a murder squad?   In the next episode an alleged rape was investigated for what seemed like most of the day before the police were called.  When the police were made aware it was malicious allegation they were met with a ‘sorry for wasting your time’  from the pupil, they appeared happy to leave, and the malicious accuser was sensitively escorted away to ‘collect her things’.

The executive head, responsible for a number of other schools in addition to Waterloo Road (who never seems to attend any of his other schools) launched a volunteering scheme and administers punishments without the knowledge of the schools’ head teacher.  Not only that, but  he is emerging as a sexual predator.  Is that reality?

Returning to the ethanol, a large amount of bootleg soft drink  mixed with ethanol  appeared to be created from one bottle stolen from a cabinet in the science classroom (not secured in a technicians room ).  While the fact that the recent incident reported in the papers suggests that fiction has influenced fact, the episode in question did deal with the negative consequences of such behaviour.  The incompetent, promiscuous, but likeable French teacher has  been implicated in allowing harm to come to one pupil in this incident.  Although she has been accused of professional misconduct she remains to fight another day.    The episode  did deal with the negative consequences of ethanol abuse, although the accusation suggests that the drama acted like a hypodermic syringe directly influencing the Walsall school pupils who could not tell fact from fiction.  Strange then that they replicated only the drinking and missed the message about how dangerous it was. 

But are comprehensive schools really like this?  Or do we just think they are?  

Perhaps, as a starting point we should ask what type of secondary school do most children attend anyway?  Are they all as frightening as Waterloo Road?  I doubt it.

The series does reflect many of the fears about comprehensive schools that have been reported in the media and identified in sociological research.  Phenomena such as ‘white flight’ and middle class abandonment of inner city comprehensive schools has been documented  (See work by Sally Tomlinson or Stephen Ball).  Waterloo Road does represent this.  Remember the disgruntled parent who demolished the school? He was a police officer who felt his daughter was being damaged by the school and the ‘undesirables’ she was mixing with.  Taking a JCB to the school foyer does, however appear to be an extreme reaction undocumented in reality.  I stand to be corrected however.  Some sections of the media too are keen to point to the danger that is represented by comprehensive schools and this perception is found in research on attitudes towards comprehensive schools.

As a representation of reality then, Waterloo Road should not be seen as a generalisation of all comprehensive schools.  However the fact that it is portrayed as a dangerous place where any decent middle class parent would not send their child does represent a reality of sorts.  One that perceives comprehensive schools as predominantly urban and unruly.  Maybe it gives us what we want from a comprehensive school drama?

Incidentally, the  school in Walsall implicated in a copy-cat of the ethanol episode, Aldridge School is a  specialist Science College, not a ‘bog standard’ comprehensive like Waterloo Road.  According to its latest Ofsted report it takes in pupils with from a range of socio-economic backgrounds, and has fewer than average  pupils eligible for free school meals. Unlike Waterloo Road it is also over subscribed, and has a thriving sixth form.  It  is, presumably considered more desireable and less dangerous than Waterloo Road.

I’ll be tuning in this week for episode 4.