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England’s Teacher Unions Fight Blair’s ‘Academies’

By Bess Keller — April 19, 2005 6 min read
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British teachers’ unions, striking a chord familiar to Americans, have cast into high profile their opposition to a government plan for replacing failing secondary schools with new-style “academies” that are publicly financed but free from most local government control.

Somewhat akin to American charter schools, though only for students past elementary age, academies are being put forward by the Labor government of Prime Minister Tony Blair as an important means of raising standards for the most disadvantaged students now in the country’s most troubled schools. Plans call for the number of such schools to expand from the current 17 to about 200 by the end of the decade.

But gathered for their annual Easter-time conventions last month, three teachers’ unions—the two largest and the most moderate—separately voted for the program to be halted. Union leaders condemned academies as harmful to regular “state-maintained” schools and as privatization in disguise. An official at one conference called academies a “Trojan horse” that would strike at the heart of existing secondary education in England.

That’s straightforward opposition compared with the sometimes complex reaction charter schools have garnered from the two national teachers’ unions in the United States. Nonetheless, on both sides of the Atlantic, the unions share at best a cool response to arrangements that allow officials to bypass teacher labor agreements—which is true of academies and most forms of charters.

“Our main concern as a union is once staff are in academies, they do not have to apply the national staffing conditions” that have been worked out by the unions and the government, said Chris Keates, the general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers.

Business-Oriented

Academy sponsors chip in 10 percent of the cost to build or refurbish schools, such as the Capital City Academy in Brent near London.

Proponents of academies say that such untried approaches are warranted where regular publicly financed schools have a long history of low student performance.

Academies replace “schools that are considered failing,” of which there are currently around 300 with a similar number regarded as seriously weak. “These are schools that may have been failing communities for generations,” said a spokesman for the national Department for Education and Skills.

Regardless, when the replacements for such schools come in the form of academies, they can be controversial and not just with the unions.

One set of concerns has centered on the role of the sponsor, the government-approved individual or group that founds each academy and “buys into” it with 10 percent of the cost of a new or refurbished building, up to a cap of the equivalent of $3.8 million. Once approved by the government, a sponsor shapes the school around its chosen vision but within government mandates. Those include nonselective admission, a work-related focus within a broad curriculum, and a governing board responsible for running the academy.

Sponsors that have come forward so far include church bodies, local governments, and charities, but by far the largest number of sponsors are large businesses or millionaire businesspersons. And not surprisingly, most schools have as their focus—or in the government’s lingo, “specialism”— business.

England’s Academies Program

• Launched in 2000.

• Part of the national government’s strategy for raising standards in the most disadvantaged and challenging areas.

• Schools at the secondary level only, state-supported, tuition-free, and nonselective.

• Each school’s “vision” set by independent sponsors, who contribute toward the cost of the physical plant.

• 17 academies operating so far, with specialties in business, the arts, sports, science and technology, and modern languages.

• 41 academies in development.

• Goal of 200 academies by 2010.

Source: Department for Education and Skills

“If businesses do want to get involved, and they are appropriate, then we welcome them because of their drive and energetic commitment to the whole academic project,” the government spokesman said.

Yet others worry about the sponsor’s influence.

“There’s a genuine fear that the academies will be a playground for sponsors’ obsessions,” said John Bangs, the head of education for the National Union of Teachers, or NUT, Britain’s largest teachers’ union with about 240,000 members.

That fear is magnified because the local education authority has no direct say over the academy, except what it receives from a single seat on the school’s governing board.

Like charter schools in the United States, the academies are seen as centers for innovation. And it is expected that the innovation will translate into higher achievement.

There is little evidence of higher achievement so far, though the first few academies just opened in 2002. Most of the schools made among the poorest showings in the country on the results released last month from tests that the government requires of 14-year-olds in English, mathematics, and science. Government officials countered that the academies are doing significantly better than the schools they replaced.

And there is no denying that academies, like charter schools, have been popular with parents. Statistics released last month by a group supporting academy sponsors show that the schools drew 64 percent more would-be students last fall than they could accommodate.

Question of Effectiveness

Still, some members of Parliament have called on the government to slow plans for opening academies. A House of Commons education committee dominated by members of the ruling Labor Party issued a report last month criticizing the government for its full-speed-ahead approach on academies, questioning whether the schools, which can cost more than the equivalent of $45 million each to build or renovate, will be worth the investment.

In fact, Mr. Bangs of the NUT said it was in part the Blair government’s unreasoning attachment to the academies program that spurred his union to step up its opposition.

At their recent conference, NUT delegates agreed to a nationally coordinated campaign to stop academies before they start, especially wherever local opposition exists.

“We’d like to put a moratorium on the development of more academies,” Mr. Bangs said.

He pointed to two communities in Doncaster in England’s Midlands that had fought off the closure of their local “comprehensive” school for children ages 11 to 16, which was to give way to a new academy. That kind of effort dovetails with union goals and would get union support, he said.

David Martin, the school’s principal—or head teacher, as they are generally known in Britain—credited a “very well- organized campaign by some of the parents” for saving Northcliffe School, which was tagged by the government in November 2003 as in need of “special measures.” The school is in an economically depressed area where coal used to be mined.

Although some parents and a few staff members favored an academy, the head teacher said, most rejected the idea. Many were concerned, he said, that the proposed sponsor, the Emmanuel Schools Trust, would overly influence the curriculum in both the instruction of science and religion. The trust was founded by a car-dealership magnate known for professing the literal truth of biblical claims.

Forging Ahead

On top of that, according to Mr. Martin, parents worried that the academy’s governance structure would reduce parents’ ability to get redress for their complaints.

The timing of the “special measures” label and the shutdown proposal also came as a surprise, the head teacher added. Just the summer before the academy plan was put forward a year ago, Northcliffe School had posted its best test results ever.

The Doncaster community’s council rejected the proposal last fall.

Northcliffe’s NUT representative was “quite active” in campaigning against the plan, Mr. Martin said.

At the time, a spokesman for the government told the British Press Association that the defeat would in no way curtail the education department’s commitment to academies, which offer children “the opportunity … for an education of the very highest standard.”

Mr. Martin said the school “should be on target to come out of special measures” this coming fall, and, meanwhile, is laying plans to open the school to the community for multiple purposes while adopting a performing-arts focus.

“We’re trying,” he said, “to harness that … huge interest in education out there in our community.”

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