'The inherently dysfunctional academy system is broken – and it can't be fixed'

We were told the academy system would raise education standards. But the failure of Wakefield City Academies Trust is proof otherwise – it's simply no way to run a school system, writes one teachers' leader

Kevin Courtney

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The collapse of Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) has shone a spotlight on the irrationality and dysfunction of the academy programme.

Today, Wakefield council discussed and agreed, unanimously, including six conservative councillors, a motion that called in the medium term "for the rules governing academies to be changed so that schools can choose to return to local authority support".

The National Education Union (NEU) echoes this demand. Schools must be accountable to their local communities, and the local authority is the only democratic mechanism for achieving this.

Wakefield council also demanded that, in the longer term, "full transparency and democratic accountability must be restored to the whole of the education service of this country".

The NEU concurs. The academy system is broken and cannot be fixed because it is inherently dysfunctional. The restoration of democratic accountability in education is urgent and cannot any longer be dodged. The alternative is a series of academy failures such as WCAT, and we cannot allow that for the sake of our children’s education.

Academy status, we were repeatedly told, was a mechanism for raising standards in schools. Multi-academy trusts, we were assured, were structures to ensure that individual academies did not work in isolation and so stronger schools could provide support to weaker counterparts. Regional schools commissioners, it was said, would hold the whole academy system to account, ensuring that both standards and the accountability of the academies sector were maintained.

'A chaotic education market'

But it isn’t happening. It hasn’t worked. Instead, we have a chaotic education market where schools are transferred from one provider to another as if they were retail units.

WCAT is a perfect case study for the failure of the academy programme. Those at the top of the organisation appeared to have no understanding of how to run a school, let alone a group of 21 schools. No one should be surprised since the former interim CEO had a background running an IT company rather than one in school leadership. The trust ran its finances into the ground. Schools that joined WCAT with a large surplus are now being told that all the money is gone and there is no prospect of its return. 

The trust was clearly collapsing long before the RSCs stepped in – anyone who had read the board minutes would have known that, but did the RSCs do so? Surely they ought to have done since they were supposed to be holding the trust to account. Even when the RSCs did finally realise they needed to remove schools from WCAT, it took them nine months to do so.

The government should be deeply embarrassed that it has presided over this academy failure and that WCAT pupils have been the victims of its failed education reforms. Yet instead of learning lessons, it is simply ploughing ahead with more of the same. The schools will be rebrokered. Parents will have no say over the new sponsor. Staff will simply be transferred to the new employer. So much for parental "choice". 

This is no way to run a school system – it has got to change.

Kevin Courtney is the joint general secretary of National Education Union

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Kevin Courtney

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