Academies are “shape-shifters”[i] and the ways that this policy has shifted over time has important implications for social justice in education. What began as a targeted policy to draw investment into struggling schools in deprived communities shifted to a policy of universal applicability under the Coalition government. They created a streamlined conversion process and pushed ‘Good’ and ‘Outstanding’ schools to the front of the queue for academy status. This policy shift suggests a diluting of academies’ social justice rationale. With high achieving and former fee paying schools becoming academies it was hard to see how the Coalition would spin this as a distinctly social justice policy in the way that New Labour had.
An analysis of 32 policy texts and speeches spanning the breadth of the academies policy highlighted discursive shifts in the way that the academies policy has been linked to a social justice agenda. Coalition discourse promotes a new form of social justice work for academies: collaboration. There is a specific expectation that academies rated as ‘Outstanding’ or ‘Good with Outstanding Features’ will “commit to supporting at least one weaker school” and that academies will be at the heart of their community, sharing resources and knowledge.
So at the discursive level a form of community-centred social justice is still connected to the academies policy. But to understand the scope for collaboration in local schooling communities, these claims need to be situated alongside successive governments’ attempts to facilitate comparison and competition between schools through performance tables, floor standards and high stakes testing regimes.
Against this backdrop, and using preliminary insights from my PhD fieldwork, which focuses on academies in a Local Authority (LA) area of deprivation, it is possible to problematise this ‘collaboration as social justice’ rhetoric. A school in this LA has made it clear that collaboration is key to its school improvement plans, and they view this as part of a wider obligation and aspiration to support educational improvements in their local community. However, the head teacher has made a conscious decision to collaborate with two schools in a different local authority, rather than with nearby schools. There was a feeling that this would lead to more transparent working which is not hampered by the demands of a competitive climate.
Theoretically, all schools are in competition with one another. Their annual data can be, and is, used to facilitate a variety of individual, local authority, regional and national comparisons. But schools with shared theoretical intakes are also in competition in a more tangible sense. A school in this particular LA has experienced occasions when its year 7 intake has plummeted. The financial impact of a small year group reverberates for five years and has necessitated redundancies. The school cannot risk another year like this. The move to academy status has been used as an opportunity to rebrand and to take a more rigorous approach to pupil recruitment. If they are unsuccessful and experience a downturn, they face another five-year financial hit and potential redundancies. But if they are successful, this fate is transferred to the academy down the road which faces very similar difficulties. These schools are locked in a battle in which each benefits from the other’s bad news: a poor Ofsted rating for one equates to a boost in recruitment and mid-year transfers for the other.
It is in this climate – of pressure, competition and fear of redundancies – that academies, like all schools, are being asked to collaborate locally. There are messages to take away from this particular LA case study in terms of academies’ role as social justice agents. It seems that some schools value geographically-distant forms of collaboration as a way of enhancing the school improvement process. Unfortunately, the current climate risks perverting attempts to bring about the sort of community-orientated social justice that the Coalition describes. Geographically-distant collaboration misses opportunities for shared responsibility for local young people and for the educational and wider regeneration of communities. In areas of deprivation, learning from another school that seems to be ‘getting it right’ with very similar students may be particularly valuable. Furthermore, in a climate that truly encouraged and enabled schools to collaborate, expertise and money could be pooled for community-centred projects that supported local families. This is exactly the sort of thing that may be worthwhile if we take Carl Parson’s point that tackling poverty in deprived communities would benefit educational achievement[ii].
Against the odds, the schools in this LA are managing to pool expertise and resources to ensure ‘fair access’ placements for some of the most vulnerable young people in the city: those who have experienced exclusion or near-exclusion from school. But it seems that this is testimony to their ethic of care and sense of professional obligation, rather than a result of government policies creating a context conducive to effective collaboration.
Amongst other things, academies are sold to us as a social justice policy. As my PhD fieldwork continues I hope to draw out local and systematic barriers to such work, as well as ways in which academies are finding new and important ways to better serve their most disadvantaged young people, often in-spite of the wider policy context.
[i] Beckett, F (2011) Preface In H. M. Gunter ed. The State and Education Policy: The Academies Programme. London: Continuum, pp. xx-xxiii.
[ii] Parsons, Carl (2012) Schooling the Estate Kids. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.