The academies programme has taken schools policy in England by storm.
For the past 15 years, the creation of more of these “statefunded independent schools” has been a political imperative for every single education minister, whatever their political hue.
But that support has been the only constant. The idea of what an academy is has changed beyond all recognition as, one by one, the defining characteristics that once made these schools different have been stripped away.
Now, with government moving towards the logical conclusion of the policy – 100 per cent academisation – the last, most important element of the academies programme is disappearing as well.
Autonomy – over school staffing, budgets, curriculum and organising the school day – has always been the central reason for promoting and acquiring academy status, but it’s becoming a thing of the past for a growing number of schools. Yet this crucial change has barely been acknowledged, let alone publicly debated or scrutinised.
Late last year, the education secretary Nicky Morgan declared that the academies programme had been “built on…autonomy and accountability”.
But the school organisation model evolving under her government means more and more academies are actually controlled by tightly run chains offering heads and governors of individual schools less autonomy than even the most domineering local authority used to.
That, in turn, means that genuine accountability now depends increasingly on how well these chains – or MATs (multi-academy trusts) – are monitored.
And when official measures look at the performance of individual schools, rather than the unelected, privately controlled chains that run them, then the accountability that has been stressed by Morgan must also be called into question.
Anyone doubting the lack of autonomy for individual academies under the new system need only listen to the people who run them. Take Mark Ducker, executive principal of Step Academy Trust, a chain of seven South London primaries.
“We need to have standard operational procedure in terms of teaching and learning,” he told TES last year. “Our curriculum needs to be very similar across the group, and our teaching style and our assessment system.”
That is control over individual schools beyond anything that local authorities would have dared do at the height of their powers – it is control over actual pedagogy. Forget autonomy over the curriculum, a growing number of academies are no longer able to decide how to teach it.
Sir Michael Wilkins, chief executive of the Outwood Grange Academies Trust, an MAT of 15 academies based in Wakefield, recently told TES: “We run it like one big school. The principals are more like heads of departments.”
The model allows him to quickly pull “levers”, enabling the instant spread of good practice across its schools. But it is not how ministers have sold academies.
Heath Monk is chief executive of Future Leaders, an organisation asked by the government to develop new training for MAT leaders. Asked how the role of an MAT chief executive compared with a local authority education director, he is clear that the MAT leader had “far more leverage”.
“As a local authority director of education, you had influence but you couldn’t just tell the schools what to do,” Monk says. “You didn’t have that line management responsibility for all the heads. But as an MAT CEO, you do potentially.”
Ian Comfort, chief executive of the Academies Enterprise Trust, was even more explicit last year when he noted that heads of maintained schools had more autonomy than their peers in MAT academies. He said that heads had to “give up their sovereignty” when their school joined an MAT.
Asked to respond, the Department for Education effectively put its fingers in its ears. “Thanks to the freedoms provided by academy status”, a spokesperson said, academies were able to “promote new ideas, offer greater choice” as well as “drive up standards”.
The reluctance of education ministers and officials to acknowledge the new reality of diminishing academy freedoms should be no surprise. School autonomy has always been the core principle of the academies movement.
Its roots lie in the City Technology Colleges (CTCs) introduced in the 1980s. Since then, much has changed: academy sponsorship is no longer restricted to business leaders and the idea that sponsors should have to contribute financially to run state-funded schools has long since disappeared.
So has the idea that academies are a bespoke solution for failing inner-city secondaries. Academies can now be outstanding, coasting or inadequate; urban or rural; secondary or primary. Academy status has become the one-stop solution for all state schools, everywhere.
The fact that academies are now also losing their distinctive autonomy has not come about through design. Ministers still want these schools to have freedoms.
As Michael Gove, Morgan’s predecessor, proudly said in 2014, the government had sought to give “principals more autonomy to hire and fire, set curricular policy and shape the school day”. But by then, the sheer scale of academisation introduced by Gove was already making his aim very difficult to achieve.
Whitehall found it impossible to replicate local authority support for thousands of new academies. The government’s just-departed national schools commissioner, Frank Green, concludes: “I don’t think any school should be an academy on its own. I think we should always put them into groups.”
And so just at the point of academies’ final triumph, as they are about to completely transform the schools system, the supposed key ingredient to their success is in danger.
Autonomy is vanishing and academy chains have taken control. But who is holding them to account? Local authorities were at least run by elected politicians.
Monk argues that MAT chief executives “have a far higher level of accountability” than local education directors. Yet it can be very hard to find out what is going on within their publicly funded organisations.
Ofsted, meanwhile, had to fight hard to gain even limited powers to judge academy chains. And as for the new middle tier – just nine commissioners are monitoring hundreds of MATs and tens of thousands of schools.
Ministers may talk up school “autonomy and accountability”, but the evidence for their claims is looking decidedly thin.
William Stewart is news editor of TES @wstewarttes
This is an article from the 5 February edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here