The State and Education Policy
reviewed by Ki Su Kim - August 30, 2013
The Academies Program was an education reform policy of the New Labour governments that ruled the United Kingdom from 1997 till 2010. Academies were the secondary schools this policy created in the footsteps of Margaret Thatchers City Technical Colleges. Many features of this policy are still maintained under the Conservative-Liberal Democratic government. The book under review is a collection of studies on the implementation processes of the Program, which, according to its editor Helen M. Gunter embodies a policy trend that has crossed political boundaries at a time which is officially post-political (p. 232) yet practically very political and unjust (p. 227). The editors intention is to enable the research and thinking . . . about education in an unjust society to be opened up and debated by bringing to light what is going on and what it means at the time of a particular type of state intervention that sustains and institutionalizes injustice (p. 227). The book must be of interest to North American readers too because their charter schools have provoked similar reactions.
The book seems to have grown out of seminar papers but its thirteen chapters are well coordinated. Their authors know what others say in their spaces. Individually these authors explore facts of a particular aspect; together they construct a fair map of the Programs diverse policy issues. The voices they thus raise are indeed shedding critical light upon the contested reform policy (p. 6) but, nevertheless, they do not do so unanimously.
Before turning to their voices, it is in order to consider how the book characterizes academies. In its characterization, they are state-funded secondary schools, or public schools in a terminology familiar to North Americans, which provide tuition-free education for youths in their local communities. According to Gunter, they are in reality small businesses [or profit-seeking entities] regulated by a performance management regime (p. 1). These schools differ from other public schools (alias maintained schools) on two counts: first, they are independent of local authorities and are funded directly from the center; and second, they are sponsored by private interests who control the curriculum and the workforce (p. 3). Initially, an academy was set up on the basis of a Funding Agreement between the national ministry in London and the academy that laid down conditions of school operation, such as admission. Gunter writes, Each academy [here] is a company limited by guarantee with charitable status, and must operate within company and charity laws. Within ten years, the qualifications of sponsorship have extended so broadly that agencies of a wide range came to establish and manage their own academies. Examples are high performing schools and colleges, universities, individual philanthropists, businesses, the voluntary sector, and the faith communities (p. 4).
Immediate reactions of the readers familiar with the existing arrangements of public education should be directed at the independence of these public schools. The existing systems of public education generally associate public funding with public accountability and the latter, in turn, is exercised through democratic processes such as elections. Academies receive state funds but do not have an account with the public. They operate outside the democratic processes in a state of democratic deficit (p. 12). They are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. Neither parents nor the community can participate in their operation in any meaningful way.
Indeed the majority of the books earlier chapters compile the most up-to-date evidence and perspectives on the Programs negative effects (p. 15). Chapter One argues that academies as independent schools can condone sponsor prerogatives on religious education, exclude particular types of students and ignore special educational needs unlike the maintained schools which handle such matters in view of protecting rights. Issues can also arise from unfair denials of admission, disciplines, the lack of formal complaining procedures, not teaching the national curriculum, and so on. Chapter Two is a case study on the establishment of an academy as the product of a particular governance regime. This regime has operated in a wider context of urban politics but, strangely, its process of establishment did not allow public scrutiny. Thus, it violated the consensus model of local politics that underpin[ned] orthodox urban governance theory (p. 49). What it meant, in this Chapters account, was the handover of schools which [were] public assets . . . to private owners and managers without local accountability (p. 50). Case studies in the subsequent chapters reveal how a joint sponsorship by an Anglican bishop and an evangelical businessman stifled local voices and rendered the school community powerless (Chapter Three) and how the national reform discourses about choice and diversity, public-private partnerships, independence and innovation [were] replicated, reworked and contested mechanically and meaninglessly at local discussions for specific proposed academies (Chapter Four).
Interestingly, the studies that examine the functional aspects of academies yield conflicting results. There are of course negative assessments. Chapter Eight, for instance, argues that there is no clear evidence that academies produce better results than local authority schools with equivalent intakes. As well, Chapter Nine claims the statistics that highlight academies high performances are merely policy-based evidence generated to serve the proclaimed goal of rescuing seriously failing schools and breaking the cycle of underperformance and low expectations (p. 133).
On the other hand, however, there are chapters that offer favorable glances at those independent schools. Chapter Seven analyzes the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) data that, by 2007, the average academy improvement exceeded that of comparison groups and England as a whole. In its analysis, the cause of such a successful outcome was the contextual variations that are linked to the variable achievement of academies (p. 113). Involved in the contextual variations were the real and symbolic flexibilities and freedom generated by independence, the degree of sponsorship especially in additional funding, leadership favorable to teaching and learning, school buildings, and the schools partnership with parents and students. Since these variations were modifiable, academies in general had potential to improve their performance and extend opportunities to pupils from all social classes to be educated in the same environment, without being based on the ability to pay (p. 115). Hereto adds in Chapter Five a friendly voice by analyzing an academys case in which sponsorship by an organization of social housing landlords ran the school clearly in the interests of local people (p. 79). In this analysis, the Program was able to bring new resources and perspectives to bear on problems with which school systems have struggled for generations notably, the link between deprived areas and poor educational outcomes (Ibid.). As well, Chapter Six provides a personal testimony by the pioneer principal of an academy concerning his approach to leadership to that emphasize[d] the behaviors of teachers as they engage[d] in activities directly affecting the growth of students (p. 97). In conclusion, the principal stresses the potential ability of academies to go beyond and above the potential for new maintained schools to be successful in the long run (p. 101).
The authors of the final chapters seem to take up a perspective that apparently reaches far beyond the editorial intention. Especially notable is Stephen J. Balls Chapter Ten, which views academies as a small minority of all publicly-funded schools yet important and significant in themselves. They were so because they were a product of a policy condensate of a serious experiment in and a symbol of education policy beyond the welfare state and an example and indicator of more general turbulence taking place in public sector governance and regulatory structure (p. 146). Academies here were one small part of a more general shift towards a new form of polycentric and strategic governance that is based upon network relations within and across new policy communities designed to generate new governing capacity and enhance legitimacy (p. 147). Other final chapters seem to largely follow this line of thought while pursuing such issues as academies as independent schools and the coherence of public schools (Chapter 11) and the enterprise logic of academies as public schools and the need of overcoming the neoliberal talk (Chapter 12).
Closing the book, one wonders whether it is fair to stigmatize the Program as a reform policy of an unjust society. Doing so may be meaningless because any society can be unjust. The accusation of academies democratic deficit as well may not necessarily be valid, for democracy can be practiced differently in different times. Also, the political label of neoliberalism that was powerfully applied to Thatcherite reforms may not be applicable to subsequent reforms pursued by different political persuasions. Even where the contents of the reforms were similar, their political orientations might not be so. To be noted here is that old ideological formulae and policy patterns do not fit in the current policy environment, because the latter has changed so much. There are, specifically, the concerns that the current public education system is not as efficient as expected and that its costs cannot grow unlimitedly. Different governments address these concerns by similar policy measures while taking different perspectives. One major cause of the similarity of their policy measures may be the fact that they are commonly coping with a world with which the established political economy of state-society relationships is in disequilibrium to borrow Piagets expression. The stories of academies may reflect the efforts that are being made to restore equilibrium in a transitional era of public education.
This book contains thought-provoking works. Read them and use them for your educational policy courses.