Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Why "academies" are a bad idea

In the UK, there has been increasing pressure on head teachers in primary and secondary schools to turn their schools into "academies". The idea is that schools are currently bound by too many regulations and red tape, lacking the competitive independence that they need to bring out the best in their students. Education for students would be improved if schools had more resources to improve local conditions where seen fit.

There are incentives to join in. For one, there is strong ministerial backing very keen to make education reform a big success of the coalition government. For another, schools have access to better funding with fewer strings attached: schools can use this to improve local pay or make upgrades.

But all things come at a cost. Where is the money coming from? Well, the money is meant to replace money that would otherwise go to local councils to provide x number of services for schools. Instead of funding a council so it could provide a set number of services to its local schools, this funding is being cut from councils and redirected to schools. Some critics have said it is like robbing Peter to pay Paul. So there is no new funding, but redirecting funding from one body to the other.

The attractions are several. It is supported by the coalition government, but an idea originally introduced by Labour - so there has been cross-party support. Plus, everyone likes slogans such as "more responsibility to schools" and "greater autonomy" etc.

There are several problems - and I believe these problems outweigh the initial attractions. Academies are bad economics. Consider the fact a school will require insurance, legal advice, etc. These services have a cost - call it x. A school would receive services up to cost x from a council. A school that turns into an academy receives the same amount - x - to pay for the same services. The first impression is that academy funding is a sleight of hand: the school receives x to cover services whether or not it is an academy.

The argument for becoming an academy is a combination of greater control and greater resources. The school still receives x, but not the school receives this funding directly. (Previously, the cost of services was paid directly to a local council so a school received this funding indirectly.) So a school may think it is earning more because last year it received y but post-academy status it receives y + x -- however, the direct payment of x merely covers the cost of support formerly paid to its council for the same support. Whether or not a particular school spending x (rather than the council spending x) will get services for less than before is the big claim of the government. But it's difficult to see how this would work.

If we each individually purchase some service it will cost more than if we were to join forces and combine resources and/or buy in bulk. Coming together can lead to greater efficiencies in the distribution of labour and improved services. Academies turn this on its head. Each school no longer benefits from a council's shared support team, but now must pay for services individually perhaps through the private sector. Working individually, academies are more likely to have to pay more for the same services than before.

There are further issues. An academy lacks the full cover of resources and support a council might offer. What if there is a legal or insurance-related problem at school? What if schools go into debt? Previously, a council could offer support and assistance, but not anymore. Not only might academy status lead to schools paying more for the services they currently enjoy, but academy status may even then make it more likely we will see schools close. Progress? Hardly.

So why would government push for these reforms? One idea is that they want to break the unions. Academies will be able to offer local pay conditions and so erode national bargaining. Teachers will find it more difficult to go on strike. Paradoxically, the government's argument for academies (e.g., greater responsibility) includes the fact that academics may be more easily controlled.

The push for academies is driven by ideology, not economics. It is about creating an ideological vision about education that runs counter to the goals of self-sufficiency, competition, and good economics. Time will tell.

UPDATE: I'm delighted to see that this post has been picked up by The Guardian's cribsheet.


M G Man said...

Hello Thom. Came to this through Cribsheet. Interesting post. One reason why schools may have embraced the academies model despite, as you say, appearing to get no net financial benefit is that the policy under the Coalition has been targeted at already strongly performing schools which make proportionately less use of local authority central services than other schools. Because the money is not ring fenced, stronger performing schools do benefit financially as they recieve amoun'x' but can spend it on what they want, rather than what the local authority wants. Just as financially it would benefit healthy people to receive a health allowance directly rather than paying into the NHS which they don't use, strong schools do receive a financial benefit. This for me is the real problem with academies - they undermine any notion of a collective schools system where the performance of the system as a whole is important, not just the performance of individual institutions.

The Brooks Blog said...

Many thanks for your excellent comments. Clearly, the academy scheme is meant to break the current system promoting new local pay conditions that will end (or at least "problematize") collective bargaining by unions. I understand that not only particularly well performing schools, but all schools in certain authorities are coming under some pressure to make this switch. One further reason why they should not is that while today schools x may well (in certain cases) receive more all things considered, they still lose the safety net and support of local authorities. So the extra cash today as an incentive to schools to become academies is not cash that might be there forever and once a school has become an academy there may be no turning back (as local authorities might not receive extra funding to support academies that wish to become schools again). It is a Faustian bargain at worst and a gamble at best, one that I think that is highly likely to lead to damaging collective bargaining and the real possibility of our seeing academies close. These new risks are unnecessary and potentially damaging, in addition to being bad economics. Academies should be opposed.