Multi Academy Trusts, who’s being ideological?

This week’s Talking Head comes from Martin Clephane, Head Teacher at St James’ RC Voluntary Aided Primary School in Hebburn, South Tyneside

Sometimes those opposing multi academy trusts (MATs) have been said to do so on ideological grounds. The truth is that ideology is at the heart of this issue as it so often is in education, which has become a “political football”.

The Academy Act came into being in 2010 and brought in by the then Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove, possibly the most ideologically driven Education Minister this country has seen. So what is driving his ideology? Well we know that as a Tory he is in part influenced by 18th Century Philosopher Adam Smith; you will know him from the back of the £20 note. Adam Smith was also a great influence on Margaret Thatcher (another former Education Minister).

So what did he do? Well in 1776 he wrote a book called the Wealth of Nations. In it were two key ideas:

1) The division of labour. Up until then a craftsperson would make something from raw materials to finished product. Adam Smith suggested that the process be broken up into parts with a different person doing each one; thus inventing the production line and revolutionising the manufacture of goods.

2) The idea that reasoned self-interest and competition would lead to economic success.  1776, when the book came out, was also the year of the American Declaration of independence. This is no coincidence as the principles of Adam Smith and other Scottish Philosophers were woven into the creation of the new nation. There is no arguing that the idea of self-interest and competition hasn’t resulted in economic success; as the United States went on to become the greatest economy the world has ever seen.

Let’s consider an alternative or counter ideology to that of Adam Smith or the tory party. Forward to 1848 and we come across another philosopher, this time from Germany. Karl Marx; who produced a pamphlet called the Communist Manifesto. The central idea was the redistribution of wealth so that the top 20% would not own as much as the other collective 80%. Key to this ideology was the seizing of the means of production, which meant that ‘fat-cat’ factory or farm owners would not gather all the wealth while the labourers did all the work for little money. The means of production would be owned by the state in the name of the people so the wealth created could be shared. It was this idea which resulted in our country nationalising industries, the creation of the NHS and comprehensive education. This control is often referred to as “the hand of state”.

Back to Michael Gove; as minister he wanted, of course, to improve education in this country. Driven by the principle of self-interest and competition he needed schools to be working independently of each other so as to compete, more effectively. (It is this idea of competition breeding success which has seen previous governments bring in standardised tests, league tables and Ofsted grades). But he had a problem; the counter ideology of the hand of state had control of the collective schools in the guise of the Local Authority. Gove would have to separate schools from the hand of state to move his ideology forward. How would he do this? Well the first way is to remove resources from the Local Authority; to starve it at source. This has led to the unprecedented cuts to local authorities across the board. The second strategy is to give schools the ability to cut ties with the Local Authority and become autonomous; thus the creation of the Academy Act.

But how would he convince schools to break away? By using two tried and tested methods 1) carrot and 2) the stick. The carrot being the lure of greater control and access to more money in your budget, (I will choose not to mention CEO wages at this point) the stick being the ‘fait accompli’ argument that it was inevitable that all schools will be academies and better you got on board sooner rather than later as you may miss out on the best rewards.

The same arguments are being used today; eight years after the creation of the act. So why didn’t it happen? Why didn’t everyone join Gove’s revolution? Gove would suggest that we are all Marxists in education and immersed in the counter ideology as discussed earlier.

I refuse to surrender to the Marxist teachers hell-bent on destroying our schools.

(Michael Gove, Mail on Line 22:02, 23 March 2013)

Well 95% of NAHT members voted against the compulsion to become an academy, maybe they were all Marxists, but something else came into play. The tory back benchers who represented communities where schools were good or outstanding could see no reason to change when their schools were doing so well. The idea of a good school having to sponsor a failing school, thereby risking its own reputation, would not fit into the idea of competition breeding success either.

Many in education regardless of any political leanings would agree with the concerns of Michael Goves parliamentary colleagues. In 2016 the Government almost completely abandoned the idea of forcing schools to become academies; a big decision as this was their key education policy. Sir David Carter, the Academies Minister, made it publicly clear that he was glad of this change in policy as he felt that trusts should “grow sensibly and in line with capacity” (CARTER, 15 October 2016) and not be forced.

Across the region schools are being encouraged to academise despite the rejection of the majority of schools resisting for so long. The rejection is mainly from primary schools as it is clear that the MAT models will often be secondary led, despite the excellent reputation of the primary schools. There is a fear of empires being built with CEOs taking control of schools; perhaps a hark back to the fat-cats controlling the means of production… or maybe that’s because we are all, as Gove contends, a bunch of Marxists.

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