Selling out education: the mass academisation of England’s schools

By Richard House, April 2016

Plans of the British government to force schools out of local authority control to become independent academies have proved controversial. It could be an education disaster in the making, argues education expert Dr Richard House.

The parlous state of England’s schooling system and the ever-burgeoning workload of teachers are the fault of both main political parties, Conservative and Labour, who since the 1990s have uncritically imported “audit culture” business practices into education. A staggering four in five teachers say they have contemplated leaving the profession.

Such alien (and alienating) management-led values arguably have no place in our schools and a major concern is that forced conversion into academy chains will make matters infinitely worse.

In this short article, I can only really scratch the surface of this highly charged debate, trying to set it in the context of an anthroposophical approach to education and schooling that is inspired by the indications of Rudolf Steiner, and within the wider cultural context of neoliberalism.

Certainly, an important backdrop to this discussion must be Steiner’s resounding quotation from August 1919, when he said in typically prophetic fashion: “The state will tell us how to teach and what results to aim for, and what the state prescribes will be bad.

“Its targets are the worst ones imaginable, yet it expects to get the best possible results. Today’s politics work in the direction of regimentation, and it will go even further than this in its attempts to make people conform.

“Human beings will be treated like puppets on strings, and this will be treated as progress in the extreme. Institutions like schools will be organised in the most arrogant and unsuitable manner,” he concluded.

Those sympathetic to a Steiner Waldorf approach to education (of which I am certainly one) have major and legitimate concerns about the role of what we might call “the over-standardising state” in its approach to children’s education and learning. As political scientist James C. Scott put it in his book of the same title, governments commonly only seem capable of “seeing like a state”.

Complex argument

A simplistic, knee-jerk response to the policy of imposed, compulsory academisation could easily be: at last, all schools are to become independent of the state and government control, just as Rudolf Steiner advocated… – bravo!

But the argument has of necessity to be far more complex and nuanced than that. Steiner’s compelling vision was one of an education system that was administered in the cultural sphere of society (this being one level in his famed three-fold social order framework) which is crucially relatively autonomous from both the government sphere and from the sphere of the economy and business.

As we will see later, a central concern is that academisation is merely a ruse by the neoliberal right for effectively privatising the schooling system and so making it part of the economics/business sphere of society. Progressive citizens inclined to the centre and the left, including most advocates of Steiner education, tend to see this as a catastrophe-in-the-making – with the only thing worse than standardised state-run education being schools run for profit in a commodified world governed by corporations.

The one side in this “class war” of a different kind represents a vision of education as community based, locally accountable and treated as a “public good” with a public-service ethos, equally available to all irrespective of background; this contrasts with a vision that privileges commodified, profits-driven and corporatised schooling, with accountability to shareholders alone and a likely “race to the bottom” in terms of standards and working conditions.

And while it is important to recognise that the government’s importing of management-led “audit culture” practices into schooling since the 1990s has been an unmitigated disaster, matters will almost certainly be far worse if schools actually become businesses, rather than merely being run according to business-like values and practices.

Autonomy and public service ethos

I have been a prominent critic of over-standardising state education on the letters pages of the newspapers for several decades, and this is an issue that government really must start to address seriously.

But if it has to be a choice between an ideological vision that embraces market competition, commodification, and corporatist values, or one which places a public-service ethos and community values at its core, then pretty much everyone except those on the extreme neoconservative right will surely opt for the latter every time. In virtually all conversations I have had with people on this issue, this latter preference comes through resoundingly clearly.

It must also be emphasised that there exists no necessary reason why the state could not allow schools to have greater curricular autonomy and independence within the existing local government-administered system. This is crucial, because academy apologists sometimes make the erroneous claim that only academisation can give schools greater independence; and if indeed this were true, it would be difficult for educators committed to Steiner’s educational vision not to support it.

Yet this is a total non-sequitur; for one does not need academisation and all that goes with it to give schools greater autonomy. One merely needs a more enlightened government to allow such autonomy within existing administrative structures; and there is no earthly reason in principle why this is not possible.

We also need to be aware of the erroneous arguments being proposed in relation to the notion of “evidence”, deviously deployed to support mass academisation. My strong hunch is that academy apologists, along with Stroud MP Neil Carmichael’s parliamentary Education Committee, are intending to align themselves with those who are skilled at the Machiavellian manipulation of statistics, fiddling and cherry-picking the data until they can claim that mass academisation is, indeed, purely “evidence-based”.

Given the multiplicity of variables involved and the unequal playing-field regarding resources between academies and non-academies, it is quite impossible to reach a conclusion about the relative effectiveness of academies versus non-academies that can be generalised scientifically. Any such claim is entirely bogus from a scientific standpoint, and must be exposed as such. In sum, therefore, mass academisation is an intrinsically ideological issue and not, as its supporters will attempt to claim, an evidential, empirical one.


Turning now to the issue of privatisation, we know from several reliable sources just what the real neoconservative long-term plan is here. First, there is former education secretary Michael Gove’s secret memo advocating academies becoming profit-making enterprises that was leaked in 2013 and reported in detail in The Independent newspaper.

Grave concern has also been expressed in many circles that mass academisation is nothing short of an asset-stripping exercise, where at some future date, a (right-wing) government will at a stroke sign over billions of pounds worth of land to private-sector academies, thus essentially stealing what are the community’s assets and giving them to private corporate interests, to capitalise and dispose of as they wish.

In any conceivable democratic society, this would be a constitutional and democratic outrage, the scale of which it would be impossible to exaggerate.

Another aspect of this neoliberal agenda in relation to the hiving off of state assets to business interests is the obligation placed upon every government since 1995 – when the GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services) agreement was signed into law by John Major’s Conservative government. Following GATS, national governments are under international pressure from business interests to refrain from excluding any service from privatisation and marketisation that can be provided on a commercial basis.

Such a wide, all-encompassing definition makes virtually any public service that is “provided on a commercial basis” subject to a relentless drive to privatisation, save certain areas like the police, the military, the justice system and public administration.

And in the trade agreements currently being negotiated by the European Union with the US (TTIP) and Canada (CETA), the exemptions, including education, are nevertheless inadequate in the eyes of some critics. Regulations in sensitive public service sectors such as education would be prone to all kinds of investor attacks, the argument goes.

Perhaps all of what we historically consider to be public services, currently available for the whole population of a country as a social entitlement and paid for out of general taxation, are in time likely to be subject to restructuring and marketisation, contracted-out to for-profit providers, and ultimately fully privatised – and in extremis, only available to those able to pay for them.

This process is indeed already well advanced in many countries, and typically without properly informing or consulting the general public on whether or not this is what the people want. The current policy of the forced academisation of England’s schools should very much be seen in this context.

Difficult choices

In conclusion, then, we are sometimes forced to make choices on pretty inhospitable ground that is not necessarily of our own choosing – sometimes, indeed, having to make a choice between the lesser of two evils. It seems to this writer that the issue of forced academisation reduces to one of fundamental ideological commitment, as between a schooling system rooted in and democratically administered within communities; or one which is ultimately run by corporate business interests with private profit being the overriding driving-force.

Of course (as Steiner would be saying today) state-administered schools need to be freed up from over-bearing government control and be allowed to set their own curricula etc. without the standardising disciplinary regime of league tables, government-imposed “high stakes” testing, and punitive inspection regimes. But we emphatically don’t need academies in order to bring such changes about!

As long as education remains free at the point of use, and any new owners/managers were to be either charities or cooperatives with no private companies or corporations being allowed to make a profit from education, then there is no reason why our schooling system shouldn’t move much closer towards Steiner’s Waldorf vision.

What will be ultimately needed is politicians with the wisdom to let go of their erstwhile congenital need to control every dot and comma of the schooling system – and all those who want to see progress towards a Waldorf threefold social order approach to education should join the increasing cacophony of voices that are advocating such a change.

Richard House PhD is a chartered psychologist, a retired senior university lecturer in psychotherapy and education, and a trained Steiner Waldorf class and kindergarten teacher who helped to found Norwich Steiner School.

Source: nna

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