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The free standing academy is so yesterday – today's academy has to be part of a chain, the bigger the better, to enable economies of scale and to propagate the parent school's desirable attributes as widely as possible.

The clue is in the name – chain. Not 'federation', with its implied freedom for members to have their own identity within a centralised structure, but 'chain', suggesting constraint, subjugation of the member schools and their heads to the decrees of the executive body. Which is ironic, when government spokespeople proclaim the great virtue of the academy to be autonomy for those 'best placed to decide about what is right for their pupils: the teachers and the head', as opposed to politicians and local authority bureaucrats.

Freedom? What freedom?

In reality there seems to be a loss of freedom all round; schools can be compelled to become academies if Ofsted judges them to be failing; if the local authority is judged to be unable to improve its failing schools, or if so many schools in an authority have become academies that local authority maintenance has become unviable. What the parents, heads or teachers may want has no bearing. Heads whose schools join chains lose their freedom to control how they want to run their schools (in so far as they have any such freedom, in view of the constraints of the testing and exam systems and the Ofsted regime). Teachers are losing the freedom to unite to obtain better pay or work conditions. Children can be forced to attend other schools in a chain further away from their homes. Parents are losing the right to belong to governing bodies – academies are not required to have to have a governing body.

However in other, undesirable, ways academies have too much freedom. Released from local authority supervision and too numerous to be effectively monitored by the eight, inadequately staffed regional commissioners, with responsibility for vast numbers of schools, or the Westminster-based Secretary of State for Education, they are able to get away with manipulating their admissions policies to exclude 'challenging' pupils or those with special needs. The Harris chain has a reputation for 'losing' Year 11 students who would otherwise bring down GCSE results, by engineering moves to other schools before they take their exams. There have been instances of financial irregularities, such as the CEO of the Perry Beeches Trust, who received a second salary through a third party supplier.

Chains' potential

But it would be unfair to condemn all academies. Some chains, set up by very successful schools, have formed a supportive relationship with local struggling schools. Primary schools can benefit from, say, the expertise in modern languages available in a secondary in their chain. Some academies have turned failing schools into thriving ones – Mossbourne Academy, for example, has achieved spectacular results in an area of high deprivation. Economies of scale do free up resources that can be spent on front line education.

Given that the process of academisation – principally in the secondary sector – has gone so far that it would now be very hard to undo, the governing bodies of all academy trusts should be reminded of the words of Abraham Lincoln: 'Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves'.

Liz Coatman
State schools specialist for the Good Schools Guide Education Consultants

June 2016

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