By Graham Street
In the last decade all but one of Hastings’ schools has been converted into an academy. The policy of local authority (LA) governed schools turning into state funded but privately controlled ones was initiated by the Labour party under Tony Blair. As part of the Public Private Partnership (PPP) approach to the public sector, it is a form of privatisation, and its stated aim was to ‘improve pupil performance and break the cycle of low expectations’. The programme was accelerated during the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition with the justification that academies offer more flexibility over curriculum and school management decisions, increase freedom on budget spending and provide more scope when procuring services. With this, the introduction of academies was predicted to usher in a new era of innovation that would increase both educational attainment and financial efficiency in state funded schools. Despite this promise, some local authorities, teaching staff and parents resisted these educational reforms, prompting the introduction of the Education and Adoption Bill 2016 designed to push through and speed up the process.
Of the academy schools in Hastings, five are run by Ark Schools, three primaries; Blacklands, Castledown and Little Ridge and two secondary; Helenswood and William Parker. Ark is a Multi-Academy Trust (MAT) that controls 38 schools throughout England. Ark has charity status and is an example of what has been termed philanthropic capitalism. The six trustees of Ark come from a background in finance. Sir Paul Marshall the chairman of the Ark school board is also the co-founder, along with Ian Wace, of Marshall Wace Asset Management Ltd, a large hedge fund. Ian Wace is the chairman of Ark’s global board. The portfolio of Marshall Wace LLP includes education services such as Pearson PLC, TAL Education and the Scholastic Corporation. Marshall Wace is also in a long term partnership with KKR an American company which is heavily involved in the education business. In 2013 KKR acquired a large stake in the Cognita chain of private schools founded by Chris Woodhead, Chief Inspector of Schools 1994-2000. In turn, Cognita told Investor magazine it would use the new funds this generated to expand into Asian and Latin American markets. KKR also invests in Laureate International which runs more than 80 for-profit universities and colleges worldwide and Tarina International a company that combines live distance learning, class based tutoring and online learning in China.
Like many academy executives Paul Marshall has political links and led the Department for Education’s (DfE) non-executive board. Amanda Spielman, a founding manager at Ark, came from a background in investment banking and later went on to chair Ofqual, the governmental organisation that regulates examinations and from 2016 she has been Chief Inspector of Schools. Her predecessor, Sir Michael Wilshaw, was also a managerial founder of Ark. While he was Chief Inspector of Schools 2011-16 he was paid a salary of £195,000 to £199,000.
Other MAT founders have similar business profiles that straddle the worlds of high finance, governmental office and education. For example, Lord Theodore Agnew who has various business interests including a partnership in the private equity firm Somerton Capital is also the founder and chairman of the MAT Inspiration Trust that controls 14 East Anglian schools. As a non-executive board member of the DfE 2013-15, Agnew led the Academies and Free Schools Board. In September 2017 Agnew was appointed Under-Secretary of State for the School System. Similarly, Lord John Nash is a founder member of both Future Academies and the private equity firm Sovereign Capital which specialises in the educational and healthcare sectors. Nash, a Conservative party donor, was appointed schools minister in 2013 and is also a former chairman of one of the biggest contractors to the NHS, Care UK.
Of all the MATs, Ark is rated the most successful and influential. Ark’s flagship school, the King Solomon Academy in Marylebone has been dubbed ‘the best non-selective school in England’ by the DfE and is often used as an example by MPs of what schools freed of the shackles of LA control can achieve. The school’s record is impressive. Despite high levels of poverty, (58% of pupils are eligible for free school meals and a significant number have English as an additional language), 93% of students achieved A*- C in 5 GCSEs. Critics of academisation have pointed out that LA schools are at a disadvantage because the education budget freeze has resulted in them facing an 8% funding cut whereas Ark schools have received an additional £3.6 million from private sponsors. Critics also point out this form of venture philanthropy often uses profits generated offshore as most hedge funds are domiciled outside the UK. Paul Marshall’s hedge fund is no exception and was originally based in the Caymen Islands and only moved to Ireland in response to an EU directive. However, the former Conservative Treasurer, Lord Fink, an Ark trustee and former chair of Ark Schools told the Evening Standard ‘everyone does tax avoidance at some level’ after his tax arrangements were questioned in parliament. But whatever the ethics, these profits are then used to subsidise privately controlled MATs whose exam results are then compared with defunded LA schools and even then the majority of MATs fail to achieve any significant improvements.
Knowledge is Power Programme
Extra funding may not be solely be responsible for the success of Ark’s King Solomon Academy school as the results were achieved using a method used by US charter schools, (the US equivalent of an Academy), called the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP). Paul Marshall has said ‘We model ourselves on the American KIPP schools’. The aim of this educational model is to maximise test scores while controlling costs and includes an intensive focus on literacy and numeracy at the expense of other subjects. KIPP adopts a standardised teaching method based on direct instruction and drilling rather than interaction. Student behaviour is micro-managed using positive and negative reinforcement within a highly standardised curriculum delivered with tightly focused scripted lessons targeted on specific test and exam content.
Ark has also been experimenting with computer based instruction. In September 2018 it plans to open its Pioneer Academy in Barnet, a ‘blended learning school with an emphasis on technology’. According to the proposal it submitted to the DfE, blended learning is ‘the combination of traditional classroom based teaching with online learning’. The blended learning technique was developed by American charter school operators like Rocketship, a non-profit network of elementary schools, primarily serving low-income students. Described by a former employee as the ‘stripped down efficiency model’ or ‘individualised learning’ by Rocketship, it involves pupils aged five to ten spending a significant part of each day engaged in intensive test preparation on computers. Rocketship staff are divided into ‘master teachers’ who often receive training at a five week summer camp and hourly paid unqualified assistants to supervise online instruction. Ark’s Pioneer Academy will use the ‘classroom rotation model’ developed by US blended learning guru Professor Clayton Christensen who argues that shifting to computer based instruction is a means of ‘eradicating rules that restrict class size and student-teacher ratios. Professor Christensen is also on record as saying ‘computer based learning on a large scale is less expensive than the current labour intensive system and could solve the financial dilemmas facing public schools’. The Pioneer Academy proposal notes that online learning will be combined with ‘instruction and input from the teaching assistant’. Ark told TES that blended learning offers ‘an opportunity for revised teacher roles’ and it will ‘improve cost efficiency through both staffing and school design efficiencies’.
As well as reshaping state education, MATs such as Ark are also creating new markets for education technology and software companies. In the US the market is dominated by Pearson and in 2015 Fortune magazine reported this market was worth 2.5 billion dollars. In the global education technology industry, Silicon Valley start-ups share the field with multinationals like Pearson. For example, KKR the private equity company that is in partnership with Marshall Wace, also backs Weld North Holdings, an education investment company which operates a digital and software as a service (SaaS) company. In turn Weld North acquired Intellify Learning, a Boston-based start-up that provides learning analytics and data management. Data management, (computer based systems to store and process test results and other information) is another growth area. This allows schools’ senior management to track and assess both student and teachers’ performance in great detail. Such systems are an integral part of the Ark Schools model which the DfE describes as a ‘highly data driven culture’. Performance information from its individual academies is received by its ‘central team’ which is then analysed to drive improvement and to hold school leaders to account. This highly centralised management structure reduces the decision making processes to the analyses of purely quantitative data principally derived from test and exam results. In this way Ark uses techniques developed in finance management and applies them to education.
Have the promised benefits of academisation come to fruition? In 2015 the House of Commons Education Committee reported ‘We have been unable to locate any evidence…of a relationship between primary academy status and raised attainment’. In secondary schools the Education Policy Institute (2017) commented: ‘There is no evidence that schools judged as good, satisfactory or inadequate… improved their pupils GCSE attainment as a result of the academy conversion.’ Perhaps this is because in an academy a child is more likely to be taught by an unqualified teacher than in a LA school but if they do have a qualified teacher they are more likely to be paid less according to the DfE Schools Workforce Statistics.
Other promised benefits of academisation have also been elusive. A report by Professor Anne West of the London School of Economics concluded that because 70% of academies are run by MATs, individual schools are no more autonomous than they were under LA control. Her report also noted that there is a lack of transparency in the way academies are run. In LA maintained schools, decisions are taken by governors elected by parents and staff through an open process whereas academies is run by trustees whose appointment are not elected or open. In addition the ‘freedom’ academies do have, for example, not to follow the national curriculum could potentially reduce the educational and career opportunity of pupils while the freedom of not having to adhere to national school teachers’ pay and conditions raises teacher retention issues. Professor West also raised concerns about the way academies are audited because, in contrast to maintained schools, they do not provide detailed account of how public money is spent. This could lead to possible abuse of funds like the ones that were revealed when the Wakefield City Academies Trust collapsed in 2017. Although a police report concluded that no crime had taken place, the academy was found to have spent £1 million of the schools’ reserves before it relinquished control. During the academy’s tenure the trust’s chief executive was paid more than £80,000 for 15 weeks work and using the school’s funds had procured almost £440,000 worth of services from his own private IT and clerking companies.
After more than seven years since academy schools first appeared in Hastings many questions regarding their introduction still remain unanswered. Has there been any improvement in pupil performance that was used to justify their imposition? There is scant evidence from league tables to suggest there has and changes in the way these are compiled make it more difficult to assess. Were these changes to testing and statistical analysis a deliberate attempt to obscure the lack of progress that academisation has achieved? If there are benefits to academisation are they worth the loss of democratic control they have entailed? Is the primary intention of the centralised management techniques and computer based learning that academies adopted to enrich education or to reduce costs in a marketised educational system? Will the goal of education simply become to supply trained workers? What happens when, as has occurred, academies get into financial difficulties and what will be the disruptive effect of this on students? If the academies’ donors were not allowed to avoid paying taxes would there be sufficient money to fund state education adequately without the need for charitable sponsors and the subsequent loss of democratic control academies entail?
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