The Emperor Comes to Town Again: Academies and their Sponsors

The Emperor Comes to Town Again: Academies and their Sponsors

Kirsty Morrin

“”But he hasn’t got anything on!” the whole town cried out at last.” (Hans Christian Andersen, 1837, Jean Hersholt trans)

Announced recently as part of the budget and tucked away in the new education white paper is the proposal that all schools in England should become (or have plans to become) academies by 2022. Although there has been stark lack of information about how this might come about, there have been extensive appeals for resistance. Those who have undertaken research in the area of academies have warned of various problems and pitfalls with this model of education. Generally there is a lack of data driven evidence that academisation improves schools. Andrew Wilkins documents a lack of accountability in the new governance structures that follow academy conversion. Others have called this announcement the privatisation of education as we know it.

Coupled with these pressing (and valid) concerns is an already diverse and somewhat complicated academies programme. From stand-alone academies, to multi-academy Trust run schools, from studio schools to free schools and university technology colleges, all operating under the brand of ‘academies’, the current picture is anything but simple. Stephen Rayner here gives a thorough account of some of the changes inherent in the academies policy, and also concedes that the project of academisation “may be frustrated by contradictions inherent in the policy complex itself”.

Not knowing just how the government plans to enforce its proposals is part of the problem, but, as I shall discuss to later, there might be a chance to intervene, push back, slow down or even stop some of these proposed changes. In this piece I want to focus on not only the structural changes, that come about through academy conversion, but on the different kinds of conversion that might take place. Drawing on my own empirical insights I will focus on sponsored academies, more specifically, a sponsor-led academy that I conducted research in (and around) from 2013-2014.

Not all Academies are Created Equal: Converter or Sponsor-led
One of the main differences between types of academy is how they come to be. Whilst the previous New Labour rules set guidelines that only schools in areas of “disadvantage” and in Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) graded, “special measures” were to become academies. In recent years we have seen vast and rapid evolution to this policy, culminating in calls for all schools to convert. There has been a split in the kinds of schools converting, those marked as “inadequate”, being forced to convert and requiring sponsorship and those OFSTED graded “good” and thus able to convert under their own initiative. Provisional data shows that whilst converter academies do not show improvement once converted, sponsor-led academies have shown some signs of improvement. In the first instance, it tells us that converting all schools is part of an ideological move, and one that needs to be questioned. Here in a piece for Conversation, Nicola Ingram tells of the “constrained decision making” brought about through forced academisation at a “good” school. It has also been suggested that short-term economics is driving calls for forced conversion. Central to this piece however, are the following questions –  ‘Just how are the sponsor-led academies “improving” their institutions?’, and ‘What is ‘success’ being attributed to? ‘

Sponsors and Their Specialisms
In the initial phases of the academies policy, academy sponsors were said to be “accountable for progressive and sustainable improvements to performance in their schools” and it was expected that they would make a capital contribution of up to £2 million towards conversion costs (inclusive of new builds). Sponsors would also introduce a specialism to the converted school in order to achieve and maintain their progressive promises. As of 2007, sponsors were no longer required to make a financial contribution; rather they only had to ensure educational expertise and commitment to social mobility. Here I’d like to pick up on two things, first the notion of ‘a specialism’, and secondly commitment to social mobility and I want to do so through considering my own ethnographic research in a sponsor-led academy.

Milltown Community Academy [1]
Placed in “special measures” by OFSTED in 2003 with only 22% of its pupils achieving five A*-C GCSE grades (including Maths and English) and in the top 7% of ‘most deprived’ in England (Office for National Statistics) this high school was marked as  prime for academy conversion at the time. Sponsorship came in the form of an educational charitable foundation, set up by a billionaire business man-turned-philanthropist. This is a similar scenario to the Harris academies chain who claim Lord Harris’ self-made success as a businessman is an inspiration to our students and his entrepreneurialism is thoroughly reflected in the can-do culture of our Academies. Documenting his own successes, in the business world, the sponsor and his foundation state that if harnessed the virtues of an ‘entrepreneurial education’ can be a catalyst for both individual and social change.

The academy’s specialism in ‘entrepreneurship’ is realised in a number of ways. Lessons in entrepreneurship are compulsory for the first two years of school life. A badge scheme links behaviours like, ‘passion’, ‘determination’, ‘creativity’ and ‘risk taking’ to ‘being’ an entrepreneur- and displays of these behaviours sees prizes (in the form of badges) awarded to the most ‘entrepreneurial pupils’. As well as this, the academy hosts a set of “entrepreneurial incubators” in which local and student start-ups businesses can operate from inside the academy, giving real-world inspiration and experience to students. Entrepreneurship is omnipresent, ever-present.

A Tale of Two Schools
Exam results at Milltown have steadily improved. This improvement is always, in some way, linked to the entrepreneurial ethos. This said, a change to the way GCSE league table results were calculated in 2014 saw a fall from 64% A*-C (including Maths and English) at Milltown to just 33%. Not ignoring the imprecision or possible manipulation of league table calculations for documenting ‘improvement’ and ‘success’, they are part of the current metrics used by the government and OFSTED to determine whether a school is “failing” or not. At the same time as this drop in GCSE pass rates occurred, the Department for Education had put the Milltown sponsor (entrepreneurial specialism in tow) forward to take over another other high school in the town. In a ‘consultation’, almost 90% of staff, parents and local councilors said “no” to academy conversion and sponsorship. Those who took part in the ‘consultation’ were pre-warned; this was not a democratic ballot, rather a gathering of opinions. In line with this position, the ‘votes’ made no difference to the fate of the school. It was forced to convert and now the sponsors run both schools, the only two mainstream high schools in the town. As such, no matter where in town you send your child to school for their secondary education, they will get an ‘entrepreneurial education’.

Reflecting on wider social patterns I contend that ‘entrepreneurship’ has become ‘the solution’ a kind of a ‘nation call’ to bridge the deficit in economy, labour market and education. Back in 2010 David Cameron proclaimed we should “…light the fires of entrepreneurialism in every corner of our country. That’s what our coalition strategy for growth is all about”. In 2014, former Labour leader, Ed Miliband added “I say to every entrepreneur: we need your ideas, your enthusiasm” Moreover, a report released in the same year by Lord Young called for Enterprise for All suggesting that entrepreneurship should be embedded in all educational institutions, from primary school through to university. The positive and necessary attributes of entrepreneurship have become part of “common sense”, and as Antonio Gramsci and Stuart Hall warned, one that needs to be questioned and challenged.

Towns Always Already, Ready for Takeover
This kind of intervention feels neither entirely new in education nor the history of the town. Rob MacDonald in reflecting back on his work on youth and enterprise culture in the 1980s, shows how ‘now’ can feel a lot like ‘then’. Going even further back, and thinking about the industrial heritage of the town, English industrial paternalism saw social, cultural and political upheaval at the turn of the last century. Victorian reformers attempted to emplace value in the physical and psychic landscapes of the towns, parading their economic and moralising initiatives where they perceived a prior deficit. When talking of political organisation and institutional representation in the factories of the North West from 1821-1901, Patrick Joyce (1980: 268) shows that while “excluded from political power, the working class was nevertheless included in the political process by means of the manipulation of the fiction of consultative democracy”.

This philanthropic model of economy and more insidiously ‘social justice’ is again a façade that we need to look behind.  In the context announcement that all schools should be academies, and taking hope from my interviews where calls of “bullshit” about the uses of an entrepreneurial education were made by some, the need to offer critique and make known (Gramscian) good sense is vital. Sociology and educational research must be part of a collective voice in the crowd that shouts “But he hasn’t got anything on!”

1. Academy and town anonymised

Joyce, P. (1980) Work, Society and Politics: The culture of the Factory in Later Victorian England, Sussex: The Harvester Press


Kirsty Morrin is a PhD student at the University of Manchester, her doctoral research focuses on UK educational policy reform, more specifically the introduction of academies and the increasing preference of ‘entrepreneurship education’ in working class communities.  In her work she considers intersections of class, aspiration, social mobility, entrepreneurship and inequality.