The way in which thousands of England’s schools are organised, controlled, supervised and funded has changed dramatically over recent years. Is this privatisation, or something else?
A series of tweets last week by one of the Department for Education’s regional schools commissioners (RSCs) got me thinking again about what may be the most important debate about education reform of the past 30 years.
Tim Coulson, RSC for East of England and North-East London, described privatisation as one of several “myths” about English education reform. He tweeted: “Academisation is not privatisation. Trusts are charities, it is illegal for them to be profit-making.”
The second sentence is true. To my mind it does not follow, however, that the first is. The word “privatisation” certainly carries some explanative power in seeking to describe the complex changes which the government hopes all schools will have gone through, perhaps by 2022.
To be fair, those who argue that academisation is not privatisation at all have some good points to make.
Academy trusts are indeed charities. Formally, they are charitable trusts which are also limited companies. They do not have shareholders, and any financial surplus is reinvested in the company.
In addition, legally academy trusts are not supposed to allow any individual in a position of influence in the trust to profit through, for example, a private company he or she owns being awarded a profitable contract by that trust.
And both of these stipulations – the academy trust as a whole being non-profit and no profit for related parties – exert power in the real world in the way academy trusts are run. I have been told that major businesses have been put off getting involved in the academies sector, for example, by the lack of a prospect of overt profit in schools management.
Those who point to the privatisations of the 1980s onwards – where previously publicly owned sectors of the economy were converted to for-profit firms with private shareholders – and say that “academisation isn’t that”, will likely shout “game, set and match!” at this point.
'Privatisation isn't a myth'
But they are too hasty. I would highlight four reasons why the word “privatisation” continues to resonate.
- The way some leading players within the academies sector talk and act suggests that education now operates, at least, in a way which can take on the appearance of private business. The Department for Education itself describes the most important individuals within an academy trust – its controlling “members” – as “akin to shareholders”. Academy trusts themselves are typically led by “chief executive officers”, rather than by headteachers. In an interview with TES in January, the CEO of the largest academy chain, Julian Drinkall, described its schools as a “portfolio” of “amazing individual brands” serving local “markets” of parents. The whole academies project, of course, is overseen by the businessman-turned-minister Lord Nash. This month, he even told schools to emulate business – and that they should be less willing to accept mediocrity.
- Academy trusts are being made to operate in what looks like a market structure. Governments since Thatcher’s have been keen to promote a “quasi-market” in state education, as parents choose schools for their children. The multi-academy model, in my view, takes the “quasi-market” to a new level, as chains of schools can be set up to compete with one another.
- Control over the rules governing how schools operate has in a sense been “privatised”, as more public decision-making has given way to rule-setting made in private. Non-academy schools have to follow laws which are traditionally subject to public debate in Parliament. For academies, the key legal documents governing how they operate are contracts agreed in private, through discussions between trustees and ministers/civil servants. And while major decisions affecting maintained schools are taken at public meetings of local authorities, in academies again they happen in private. But the final point is by far the most fundamental...
- The academies scheme can hand control over large sums of public money to a very small group of individuals, albeit subject to some oversight by central government. For me, the central element in any discussion of privatisation is control. Are assets subject to private control, or not? My Oxford Dictionary of English seems to back up this point, defining “privatise” as: “transfer (a business, industry, or service) from public to private ownership and control”. (Note: the word “profit” does not feature).
Now, arguably we do not have “private ownership” when it comes to academies, though some may contest this. However, there is certainly a case that we have a major element of “private control”.
Indeed, the academies scheme originated with the Labour government giving great influence over the governance of largely struggling inner-city comprehensives to incoming private “sponsors”, who would control decisions on curriculum, contracts and more.
This is essentially the system we still have for academies. Their governance can still hand great power to small numbers of trustees, who can be close friends or even relatives. Arguably, the defining feature of England’s academies reforms has been the willingness of politicians to hand the spending of – in some cases – hundreds of millions of pounds to small groups of people, subject to some Whitehall oversight, in the hope schools will improve.
Is that privatisation? Well, it seems wrong to dismiss the word as a “myth”, when there is no obvious substitute which might resonate with the general public to describe a process which should be seen by all as a subject worthy of national debate.