As someone who believes in limited government, I feel conflicted about universal academisation. I’m a fan of the academies policy because it reduces the involvement of politicians and bureaucrats in taxpayer-funded education, but there’s something a little Stalinist about the state forcing all local-authority schools to become academies. It’s using socialist methods to bring about a conservative goal. It reminds me of that paradox first-year philosophy students struggle with — is it right to force a slave to be free?
Jeremy Corbyn and the teaching unions have decided that this is a good issue for them and are planning a national campaign against ‘forced academisation’. But the emphasis on the word ‘forced’ is curious because that’s the bit of the policy you’d think they’d like. Last week, as I did a tour of TV and radio studios to defend academies, I found myself facing left-wing opponents who were complaining about central government diktat and one-size-fits-all schools. Suddenly, diversity of provision and parental choice had become good things. Hang on, I thought. That’s exactly what I was arguing in 2009. It was as though I had switched places with the anti-education reform campaigner Fiona Millar.
A moment’s reflection reveals that this can’t be what the left really objects to — after all, Labour’s education policy, insofar as it has one, is to restore local-authority control over all taxpayer-funded schools. Given that nearly 70 per cent of state secondaries in England and 15 per cent of primaries are already academies, that would involve almost as much coercion as the measure it opposes. Critics of academies have demanded a uniform system of state provision for decades, so it’s a bit rich for them to complain about the universality of the policy. They’re just annoyed that the monocultural system we end up with won’t be Finland.
But if the left is only pretending to dislike academies for that reason, why does it really dislike them? It’s a bit perplexing, because nearly all the other reasons they put forward are based on misunderstandings.
Corbyn used the phrase ‘asset stripping’ in his speech to the NUT last week, but that’s flat-out wrong. When a school becomes an academy, the land and buildings aren’t transferred from a local authority to a private company. Rather, the freehold is retained by the authority, which offers a lease to the academy or multi-academy trust it’s decided to join. ‘Asset renting’ would be more accurate, but that it have the same ring.
I used the phrase ‘private company’ just now and it’s true that academies and multi-academy trusts are limited companies, but that phrase needs unpacking because Corbyn and his allies use it as a synonym for ‘profit-making’. In fact, academies are a specific type of company more commonly known as ‘charities’ and, as such, they’re prohibited from making profits. So accusing the government of ‘privatising’ state schools makes little sense, unless by that you mean entrusting charities with stewardship of our public education system. Not much of a rallying cry either.
More sophisticated critics admit that academies cannot make profits, but point out that the people who run them can let contracts to profit-making companies. Quite true, but then so can local-authority-run schools. So can NHS hospitals, for that matter. And what’s wrong with that, providing they’re getting value for money? As someone who’s helped set up four academies and is now the CEO of a multi-academy trust, I can assure you that there are strict rules in place to ensure we do get value for money when letting contracts. We’re audited once a year to make sure we comply. That’s more frequently than local-authority schools.
Reluctantly, I’ve come to the conclusion that Corbyn and his allies don’t actually know what an academy is. All they know is they were invented by Tony Blair and that’s good enough. The funny thing is, if they did their homework they’d discover that buried in the fine print of the funding agreements that all academies have to sign are clauses granting the Secretary of State for Education sweeping powers over them, should he or she choose to use them. If Corbyn actually won an election, all he’d have to do is ennoble Fiona Millar and install her in the DfE, and it would be a one-way ticket to the Finland Station. Which is why I’m a bit ambivalent about them.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.