The recent government announcements about academies and free schools have highlighted the familiar themes of autonomy, liberation, and devolution of funds to the front line. The government has promised to abolish bureaucracy and allow schools to operate independently. Prior to this, Sir Bruce Liddington, schools commissioner in the last Labour government, who is now Director-General of the academy chain E-ACT, delivered a speech outlining his vision for a ‘world-class education system.’ However, this vision did not involve the words freedom and empowerment, but instead focused on charitable trusts running chains of schools with centralised back-office services and the possibility of generating a profit in the longer term.
Liddington unveiled his organization’s five-year business plan which highlighted the group’s ambitious goal to expand their 11 academies and get 40 academies, 21 free schools, and 65 "converter" academies by 2015. Furthermore, rumors have suggested that E-ACT is looking to run more than 250 schools someday. The vision of an education system where thousands of autonomous organizations bloom and nourish control over their budgets has been a long-term goal of politicians on the right for almost 20 years. However, upon closer inspection, an alternative vision of the future emerges.
It involves a patchwork of government-funded chains, each with a distinct brand running thousands of schools and top-slicing revenue the same way local authorities have been doing for years. The Ark chain is one of these chains with high expectations for the schools it has been acquiring since Labour’s academy program was unveiled over a decade ago. The chain’s six pillars include high expectations, good behavior, depth before breadth, small schools, excellent teaching, and longer school days and are rolled out meticulously from the heart of the Ark operation. The organization claws back 4.5% of the school’s budget for central services such as HR, procurement, finance, school improvement, and research pedagogy.
The Ark approach is one of "stewardship" rather than control, where each school has its own distinctive character, but all share an Ark vision and ethos. Although academy chains recognize their accountability for results, there needs to be something standing between schools and outright failure aside from Ofsted. This approach is similar to that followed by other large academy groups such as Oasis Community Learning, who retain 4.5% of their schools’ funding to provide central services.
Rev. Steve Chalke of Oasis Community Learning prefers to describe the group as a family of academies rather than a chain. Their aim is to provide opportunities to young people who do not have them. Building a cluster allows them to share expertise and costs, and procurement, which improves the quality of each school. The chain started with one school but realized they could add more value by adding schools.
The retention of funds for schools by local councils varies significantly, with some retaining only 3% while others retain up to 10%. However, some councils have found innovative ways to improve schools dramatically. The Learning Trust, a social enterprise that has managed education on behalf of Hackney Council for a decade, has boosted GCSE results in an authority previously criticised for its inadequate schools. Alan Wood, Director of Children’s Services in Hackney, believes that cooperation between local authorities, schools, and parents can lead to higher standards while allowing for diversity and autonomy, including academies.
The purpose of chains, such as Ark and Oasis, might be compromised if other, more financially-motivated groups enter the market. The accounts of larger chains show that enormous sums of money are at stake and that governing trusts retain a significant amount of the funds. Many of these funds are not publicly available, which highlights issues of transparency in the operations of chains. The director general of E-ACT now earns more than many council chief executives, even though he oversees only 11 schools. E-ACT is also establishing a for-profit operation to sell services back to schools, and the financial returns for those involved in school chains can be substantial, even without the opportunity to make a profit.
Some suspect that the Department for Education is seeking to allow for-profit schools, as it brokers deals between academies, chains, and free schools. There is no limit to the number of schools that a chain can take on if it is deemed competent by the Secretary of State. The long-term development of the policy is still uncertain, and it remains questionable whether the core need for schools is autonomy or better forms of local accountability. The accountability of these large chains concerning vast amounts of public money will also require closer scrutiny.