After decades of tribal war, the political mainstream has reached a consensus on a new model of schooling that will drive forward ‘standards’ of education: the Academy. Since April 2014, the academies have come to comprise over half of English secondary schools and have governance at the heart of the initiative. The aim is to give civil society greater freedom and control, making their actions flexible and accountable. So far so good?
The problem with this kind of political speak is that words like ‘freedom’, ‘accountability’ and ‘flexibility’ can mean a variety of things and could, coming from the mouths of different people, can even be directly contradictory. As such they should be taken as questions, not answers. Freedom to do what, or from what? Accountablity to whom? Flexibility for what purpose? It is when asking these questions that some of the problems with the model come to light.
Freedom. Despite giving head teachers and governing boards more control over school hours, curriculum and budgets, the political agenda still dictates the purpose of education. In other words, you’re still being told what to do; you’re just no longer being told how to do it. And it’s now on your shoulders if you get it wrong.
Accountability. The model follows a general divestment of work from the political sphere to the economic sphere. As governments have given a marketised civil society the role of educating (while still dictating the agenda), the political issue of what education is for gets swept under the rug. The focus on making our children more skilled and employable becomes self-evident, it’s just a question of whether our teachers are meeting those targets.
Flexibility. This particular definition has just been confusingly misplaced in the context of teaching. Anyone who has worked in a school will be able to tell you that educating young people is a matter of establishing relationships, understanding difference and building trust, all of which take a huge amount of personal flexibility. These things are done through continuity and a supportive environment, both of which are directly negated by the economic definition of flexibility: a flexible workforce.
This highlights the use and misuse of economic logic and terminology being misplaced in the wrong category. Genuine learning is not reducible to the ‘output’ of GCSEs, to be compared with other factories of education. The real problem with the academies is not that they are actual businesses making money off children; it’s that they are actual centres of education but they pretend to be businesses and consequently treat young people as objects to be filled with knowledge and skills rather than humans who should be treated as the subjects of their own lives and education.
However, the answer is not wholesale rejection and resistance. The academies were a response to very real problems, which have always existed in education. The answer is not to offset economic initiatives with more political control. Education should be in a state of constant renewal and the importance of the continuous professional development of teachers should be recognised. Moving education towards a civil society with greater freedom and accountability is a step in the right direction, but only if the freedom is authentic, and civil society is made up of public actors, accountable to their own actions and with a social responsibility.