Academisation: Is this the equivalent of the FE sector’s 1993 moment?

Academies are opening at an exponential rate. But there’s nothing new under the sun, as the saying goes—we have been here before, if we would all but look. A useful lesson can be learned from the FE sector and begs the questions: how long before all our schools are classified as being in the private sector? And what should we as Liberal Democrats feel and do about that?

Under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 (which took effect in April 1993), colleges were “incorporated”, ie they were given full financial independence, together with full powers to own assets, employ staff, enter into contracts, and determine the supply of services. As far as governing bodies were concerned, it was a statutory requirement that a majority of the governors were now drawn from business, commerce and the professions, with no more than 20% of governors with Local Authority connections.

With incorporation came a second significant associated change. The 1992 Act transferred the statutory duty to provide adequate further education from local authorities to the Secretary of State. This new direct relationship between the government and colleges was key to the government reaping the full benefits of incorporation. Government now provided funding directly to individual colleges (through the Further Education Funding Council [FEFC]) and was therefore able to introduce specific funding regimes that incentivised efficiency and cost reduction. Therefore, conversely, despite an increase in autonomy, FE colleges in reality became controlled by central government principally through the FEFC’s funding mechanism.

Other changes consequent to the 1992 act included:

• The new funding formula meant that funds could be ‘clawed back’, if colleges failed to meet targets, retain students or if students fail to successfully complete courses.
• Most colleges withdrew from national bargaining and established local pay bargaining mechanisms.
• The role of College Principal was transformed from a professional academic into chief executive of a quasi-private enterprise in a new and highly competitive market.

The turbulence in the FE sector since 1993 has been considerable, with many views at polar extremes about the success of incorporation. There has been “merger mania”, colleges going to the wall (over 100 have gone since 1993), and increased efficiencies and a more business-focused approach to delivering FE, set against an ever-shifting political backdrop, especially as regards to funding.

Many colleges have relished the freedom of being able to control their own destiny, despite the extra rigour and accountability that goes with being “on your own”. At the same time, many see that being in competition with other colleges can reduce collaboration and strategic curriculum and course planning that benefits students. Many colleges have been and continue to be predatory in their behaviour, hoovering up other organisations, sometimes outside of normal geographical boundaries. The consensus now seems to be that most of the mergers have been forged, hopefully leading to greater stability in the sector.

Going forward it will be interesting to use the FE experience as a lens through which to view goings-on in the schools sector. But as far as: privatization; marketization; greater government control; and an assault on pay and conditions and the unions in general — it is very easy to see how this will all play out in the schools sector and why it continues to be so important for this government to ensure that all schools become academies (ie companies).

The question that it is not easy to find conclusive answers to is: How has the 1992 Act improved education for young people?

One final remark: from April 20112, FE and sixth form colleges are no longer technically state sector bodies, they are now private sector bodies. So, how long before academies are no longer, technically, state sector bodies and are classified as private sector bodies? It has never been more urgent for us as Liberal Democrats to prosecute in any way we can the wisdom of the academy road train.

* Helen Flynn is an Executive Member of the LDEA. She is a former Parliamentary Candidate and Harrogate Borough Councillor and has served on the Federal Policy Committee and Federal Board. She has been a school governor in a variety of settings for 19 years and currently chairs a multi academy trust in the north of England.

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  • Andrew Thomas 10th Apr '12 - 8:43pm

    My experience of the FE sector is that each year courses are cut back for students and staff conditions are attacked so as to demoralise them and lead to colleges struggling to attract the calibre of staff. I believe that the education of our young should not be compromised by the agendas of the different private companies that effectively run our colleges. If this is the future of schools then we are heading for trouble. The danger is that a curriculum could be based on vested interests rather than the common good.

    Local Authorities have in the past been where people can speak to their local elected representatives about their local schools. How ironic that we have a localism bill and yet the control of our schools has been taken away from our local areas.

  • I don’t follow the final line: “It has never been more urgent for us as Liberal Democrats to prosecute in any way we can the wisdom of the academy road train.” Can anyone help? Is this saying we should support or oppose academies, based on the FE experience?

  • Helen Tedcastle 11th Apr '12 - 3:18pm

    Completely agree with Mary Reid. Good teachers in this country are being pushed to the limit by this government and the constant denigration of their professionalism by Gove, is outrageous.
    I am not by nature fond of unions and their hacks but this is the first Easter when I, as a teacher of twenty years in the State Independent schools), sat up and cheered when the leaders of the NUT, ATL and NAS/UWT stood up for my profession; and against Gove.

    I am all in favour of constantly improving standards of teaching and learning but this government has alienated the very moderate, hardworking ones at the chalkface, who can make the difference!

    When is my own party going to stand up and be counted against Mr Gove and his friends in the Murdoch press?

  • Nick (not Clegg) 11th Apr '12 - 4:20pm

    “I’m so sad that as a party we have backed a similar change of status in secondary education.”

    Yes,it is sad isn’t it? For me, it was one of the deal-breakers that led me to sever my connection with the party.

  • jenny barnes 11th Apr '12 - 9:08pm

    Dunning Kruger effect – how incompetent people in complicated areas have no concept of their own incompetence, and when it’s pointed out to them consider it to be obstructionist nonsense by vested interests of one sort or another. Lansley, Gove etc. I thought declaring the Downhill school parents to be trotskyites when they didn’t want their school to be turned into an academy after Ofsted had their arm twisted to declare the school unsatisfactory was particularly risible. What happened to parent choice?

  • Nick (not Clegg) 11th Apr '12 - 9:17pm

    @ Jenny Barnes

    “Parent choice” is all about parents being free to choose what Gove considers good for them. If they make the wrong choice, he will choose for them that which they would have chosen if only they had been wise enough to choose it themselves; it’s called “positive freedom”

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