THE "ENTROPY" OF CITY ACADEMIES

Tawfiq Chahboune

 

CHOICE & CONSULTATION

 

For those who are mesmerised by City Academies - part of Blair's war on comprehensive secondary education posing as "modernisation" - demystification occurs when one takes into account what is said in secret and what is said in public. The public face is one of improving education, offering opportunities and even "choice" to the disadvantaged. In private, however, things are…well, let's see what they have to say.

 

The Learning Trust, the private company in charge of education in the London borough of Hackney, delivered a most illuminating internal report in late 2003 to its Board of Directors. The report detailed the "responses to the public consultation on the future of Kingsland School launched by Hackney Council in July 2002" and, even with the most recent Office for Standard in Education (Ofsted) declaration that "the school has made good progress since the last monitory inspection", its determination to "recommend a closure plan for the school". (The Learning Trust is mocked by Hackney residents thus: "There is no 'learning' and there is no 'trust'". Otherwise, everything is hunky-dory.)

 

A striking indication of the Trust's single-mindedness to ensure closure was their preconceived admission that "even an exceptionally positive report" on improving standards at Kingsland would be irrelevant and that the school should close because it was now impossible to "reverse the profile that has developed" among the public of a failing school. Furthermore, because parents will "vote with their feet" and take their children elsewhere, it would be best to put an end to Kingsland's agony of "withering on the vine" by encouraging parents to take their children elsewhere because "the Trust cannot in good faith advise parents that Kingsland School provides a satisfactory standard of education", even though "most respondents to the consultation supported the school remaining open". The Trust's "good faith" advice is, as they are only too well aware, a harbinger of closure. Publicly informing the community that the school is unsatisfactory and only good for bulldozing is hardly likely to have them flocking.

 

Although the Trust agreed that Kingsland "demonstrated the quality of education" had been "raised", this was judged immaterial because, to use their curious mumbo-jumbo, "entropical forces" were determining Kingsland's fate. Moreover, the decision to close the school was being made on "the basis of probable rather than certain arrangements for existing pupils". That is, Kingsland's pupils are not guaranteed a place at another school. For parents worried about where their children will go once Kingsland closes, they need not worry unduly because the Trust's generosity is such that they will be offered "counselling on finding a place"; pupils, meanwhile, "will be given assistance in preparing applications".

 

Bizarrely, the Trust discloses that if "closure is agreed" they will be lumbered with "an increasingly direct responsibility for guaranteeing the education of Kingsland's pupils". The Trust, who proclaim, with a straight face, to be "the future of education in Hackney", were presumably under the impression that they did not have a "direct responsibility" to educate Hackney's children. The resulting closure costs "are likely to be substantial" and the "total impact of closure is £1.3 million".

 

The "consultation" by the council was, predictably enough, a public relations exercise and not to be taken seriously. Of those "consulted", 88% of the community, 97% of parents, 100% of pupils, 100% of schools in the borough, and 100% of teachers at Kingsland and 100% of teachers in other schools opposed closure. With near unanimous support for keeping the school open, the decision to close yet another school which "has made good progress" because of mysterious "entropical forces" is all very New Labour. This is known as "choice", and New Labour has chosen to ignore the "consultation".

 

All City Academies have a specialist subject. This raises an immediate problem. Suppose the local City Academy specialises in sport. But let us also suppose that there are pupils who wish to specialise in languages or science or anything but sport, where should the aspiring linguists, scientists and slow runners go?

 

More important, however, are those investing in Academies. Religious fundamentalists have seen an opportunity to brainwash the young. Creationism is taught at some Academies, directly rubbishing Education Secretary Ruth Kelly's claim that "private sponsors don't have an influence on how the science curriculum is taught". In one evangelical Academy, courtesy of the creationist car-dealing Sir Peter Vardy, "history" consists, for example, of whether Britain was saved from Hitler by way of "an act of God". Lest we forget, the evil Harry Potter books have been banned in Vardy's Academies. The books supposed encouragement of witchcraft was enough to see them discarded. Their educational merit was irrelevant. Perhaps we can look forward to Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows and other books with talking animals similarly jettisoned? After all, only an animal infused with the spirit of the devil would talk and row boats. Interviewed on Radio 4's The Learning Curve (29 November), a programme dedicated to education, Jacqui Smith, Labour's Schools Minister, was asked about the inclusion of creationism in the science curriculum. Smith replied that this part of the science curriculum was "operating within the overall framework of R.E. [religious education]". Thank you, Minister. Science is operating within the framework of religion.

 

CHOICE & "ME PLC"

 

Where faith sees an opening to corrupt the young, business is not far behind. Academies specialising in "business studies" are the most common by far. One Academy has a mock stock exchange, another drills the pupils into thinking of themselves as "Me PLC".

 

Kelly goes on to congratulate the cash "gift" from private sponsors: "We should be proud that sponsors want to put something back into disadvantaged communities." They put in, but don't get anything back? Let us allow Barry Sheerman, the head of the Commons select committee on education, to reply: "The representative of one sponsor came to see me in my office a couple of days ago and I asked him why his organisation wanted to sponsor an Academy. He said that he represented one of the largest financial institutions in the country, if not the world, and it knew a good bargain when it saw one. It is a good investment to get that involved and raise one's profile for £2 million". An even better investment now that New Labour has dropped the price to as low as £800,000.

 

Moreover, these hard-nosed business types are willing to invest money because there is something to be gained, and altruism isn't it. This is a controversial area, with many experts disagreeing on whether businesses are making profits. But imagine the following scenario: a food company could capture a market of thousands of hungry pupils by merely paying between £800,000 and £2 million in "sponsorship". A "bargain", as Barry Sheerman was told. Moreover, the pay and conditions of Academy staff are to be negotiated by the sponsors, thereby allowing a higher profit margin to be attained by cutting pay and imposing more stringent working conditions. The natural concomitant will be the further erosion of trade union rights and their ability to withstand these surreptitious attacks. There is also the case of a private sponsor who found himself the proud recipient of some of Islington's most sought after real estate - land to be developed and flogged off - and thus much richer than when he entered as a sponsor who only wanted to "put something back into disadvantaged communities", to quote Ms Kelly, a religious fundamentalist so scary that she scares other fundamentalists.

 

All of this, however, suggests that the reason businesses are entering the education sector has little to do with the minor profits currently available. To view business decisions in this way would be to misunderstand the business world: businesses are happy to enter into the public arena so as to normalise private sector involvement in the public sector. This is a long-term strategy. Though, the returns may not be particularly impressive today, that is not the issue. They're looking to future profits once the public sector (whether educational or other more profitable areas) is opened up to private finance. There is nothing perplexing about any of this. The parallel would be the way many people invest in a business or shares with an eye to the profits years from now. What businesses are concentrating on as well is the "market" in post-sixteen education, where there is a good possibility that they will be able to charge students in the same way universities now expect thousands of pounds in tuition fees. Unsurprisingly, this is all subsidised by the taxpayer. The taxpayer funds almost all the costs of the Academies - money that comprehensives can only dream of - yet it is the private sponsors who profit.

 

More insidious is the political/ideological reasoning. Governments are extremely concerned with ensuring that a public sector should not exist. The essential dynamic is to cut off democratic participation in all areas of life and to atomise it. Hitherto, the responsibility of the running of a school had been in the hands of the local education authority, school governors and the headteacher. All of this is now at the discretion of the sponsor and the board the sponsor sets up and to some extent central government. Although the previous system was no paragon of democracy, it was infinitely more democratic than the one controlling Academies. The pretence of public accountability no longer exists. 

 

Given the deliberate confusion and muddying of issues, it is not surprising that even New Labour's education minister had no idea what City Academies and "choice" are about. On Question Time, David Lammy (a chap incapable of keeping to himself his Harvard education) responded to the criticism by making a complete fool of himself. Naturally, he had no answer to where a child should go to if their specialist subject is not catered for. Furthermore, he was of the opinion that "choice" means "more schools". When informed what it actually means, a humbled Mr Lammy informed/patronised the watching public about how important it is for every child to have a good education…and how he…yes, he…a poor black boy…attended…Harvard. (Are there special scholarships for the stupid and vainglorious?)

 

The upshot has been that those Kingsland pupils lucky enough to have found a school place for the new academic year can now be found as far out as Camden, Stratford and Bow, many miles from home. Some pupils will now have to travel up to an hour to get to schools. The inconvenience and danger that this will cause, the staff laid off and the misery accompanying already overcrowded schools having to deal with a staggering increase of pupils from a needlessly closed school is unimportant. What is important, apparently, is entropy. Steve Sinnott, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, says of New Labour's fixation with creating a market in schools: "Only some parents have the luxury of being able to transport their children across a city or a rural county. Only some parents can fight their way through an admissions system that allows individual schools to set their own criteria. That is not choice: that is a test of parents' ability to fight their way through a morass of admissions schemes and is a recipe for selection by schools." 

 

Like New Labour's education policies, entropy, a measure of disorder, always increases towards disorder or stays the same. The disorder never decreases. In the same vein that the costs for City Academies have ballooned. Originally, a City Academy was mooted to cost £10 million. The figure now stands at £23 million, a mere 130% increase. Originally, £2 million of private cash was required, now it can be as low as £800,000. Indeed, the government is now offering Academies at a "four for the price of three" offer. The rate of entropic disorder is further highlighted by the astonishing fact that, though Academies are allowed to select (presently 10%) the right kind of pupil, the academic pass rate has not significantly risen, while in some it has actually decreased. New Labour claims that choosing pupils by "aptitude" is inherently different to the backward Tory policy of choosing by "ability" - a distinction without a difference. Under "aptitude" my Oxford English thesaurus directs me to "ability".

 

"THE WRONG SORT OF CHILDREN"

 

It takes a great deal of incompetence to achieve no gains even when rooting out what are considered to be the less academically gifted, sometimes by expulsion (which has necessarily risen) when the undesirables still get through. Given that money follows "success", the less profitable child must be weeded out and grouped together away from the golden kids. What we are witnessing is unique in education policy: grammar school divisiveness, yet with financial costs greater than grammar schools, but without achieving grammar school results for the lucky minority who jump through the City Academy hoops and are thus selected for a better "education". Again, this takes real talent to achieve. One might say that this is the perfect New Labour equation: 130% extra "investment" into private pockets for zero gain, educational or otherwise. Someone once referred to this kind of dealing as not even capitalism but as "kleptocracy". Yet, unsurprisingly, Blair has referred to this - quite rightly, when one removes the propaganda and translates what Blair is actually saying - as "one of the best examples of modern social justice that I can think of", or, more accurately, to misquote JK Galbraith, private affluence as a result of public squalor.

 

Proof of the divisiveness Academies generate came when the Freedom of Information Act forced the Government to release a study by PriceWaterhouseCoopers showing them to be social and educational disasters, and any benefits were not worth the social pathologies that would certainly arise. The most serious setback would be that they would decrease social mobility, whose causes are well known. But then this should be no great surprise: if City Academies are successes - that is, for those lucky few - house prices will rise in that area. This in turn will attract only those in the social class able to benefit from a divisive schooling. We've long been acquainted with postcode health services, postcode education is to be taken to an even higher level. Those who are poor can look forward to a poor education. All of this, one contends, is proof that improving education is not what the Government is interested in. A report commissioned by England's local education authorities makes for stark reading: "We fail to understand why the DfES [Department for Education and Skills] is putting such substantial resources into academies when it has not produced the evidence on which to base the expansion of the programme." They also claim that the government is "disingenuous" in its use of data - that is, selecting only the parts that bolster its arguments, while ignoring the mass of evidence to the contrary.

 

By far the most important factor in improving education is the eradication of poverty, the improvement of communities, greater access to education and educational resources, and educational freedom (higher standards can only be expected or demanded when these social problems have been overcome). Is it any coincidence that better schools are to be found in middleclass or upper-middleclass areas, while worse schools just so happen to be located in poor areas? This connection to poverty was highlighted by an investigation by the Guardian. They concluded that City Academies admitted fewer poor children: "The Guardian looked at the number of children eligible for free school meals, the standard indicator of deprivation, at all 14 academy schools for which figures are available and found eight had reduced the proportional intake of poorer children. Overall 45% of children at the predecessor schools had been eligible for free school meals. At the replacement academy schools that figure has fallen to 31%." And Academies see poor children as hampering their position in the school league tables.

 

The Government's kleptocractic behaviour was best described by a New Labour Hackney councillor who fulminated about the children the borough was forced to educate: "Hackney has the wrong sort of children in its schools" and, of the residents in general, "if we could only get rid of these people, fewer services would be required." The "services" the councillor's referring to are those keeping the poor fed, housed and schooled. Hence Hackney Council's ecstatic embrace of a socially destructive educational policy. City Academies are one of the tools Hackney Council is using in its effort to "socially cleanse" the "wrong sort of children" and "these people", as the councillor was honest to divest.

 

Kingsland School has been knocked down after a long and dirty fight, which included the smearing of a teacher (generally considered to be the finest teacher in Hackney's history) for his previous union activities that stalled Hackney Council's desired bulldozing of an improving school. That Kingsland improved at all is a testimony to the hard work of the staff. Parents of children attending the school, I have been told, were subjected to a long campaign of scurrilous and disturbing telephone calls informing the parents that the school was to be closed and that it would be wise to move their children elsewhere in order to get a head start on the predictable rush when Kingsland would close. Many parents complained that a systematic campaign was in operation to "run the school down" so that it would have to close. This is, of course, a very different story to the official one we are asked to believe. With Kingsland finished off, the Learning Trust have turned their gaze to Hommerton College, another planned site for a City Academy. Hackney residents are more determined than ever, having seen the lengths the Learning Trust and Hackney Council stooped to last time, to prepare for a long battle.

 

Hackney has long been a laboratory for all kinds of social experiments by a council synonymous with incompetence. Hackney now has no mixed sex secondary comprehensive schools in the borough. And with many more City Academies planned, this dirty war is coming to a school near you. Don't say you haven't been warned. The dirty war will be called "social justice". If the arguments fail to convince sceptical teachers, parents, pupils and, indeed, taxpayers, they may even twitter on about something called entropy.

 

Many thanks to the Independent Working Class Association and Professor Richard Hatcher of the Education Department, University of Central England for answering some queries and pointing me in the right direction on City Academies. Needless to say, they are not responsible for any errors of fact or the opinions stated here.

 

 

 

Jan 2006

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