Wanted… Sponsors for City Academies, a new form of state secondary school independent of local authority control. A bargain too good to miss! Two million pounds sponsorship will release a twenty-five million pound government grant. Sponsors of three academies will be offered a fourth free-of-charge.1
To hear this in 2005 sounds bizarre. And it is. These don’t sound like the Academies as proposed by Milton 350 years ago. And why is the family silver so discounted2? What’s going on? It’s a complex situation, but it’s one that every self-respecting Englishman needs to grasp. Conservatives coming to power in 1979 were determined on a rigorous control of the public monies. Because of the partnership between local and national government, laid down in the 1890s and reinforced by the Education Act of 1944, central government made an annual rate support grant (RSG) to the county councils being their share of the anticipated expenditure for the forthcoming year. Local councils then fixed their own domestic rate on householders and businesses, and together these funded all local services, including education. Such an extended chain of decision making meant that monies didn’t always get to the right place. Thatcher did not like this3.
Well into the mid twentieth century Englishmen showed considerable interest in local politics. Aspiring MPs often “learnt their trade” by first becoming local councillors. For as long as local and national politicians held roughly the same overall expectations (the creation of a welfare state and a national system of education) things worked relatively smoothly4. However, as the economy picked up in the late 1960s local politics became the battleground between those who wished to see increased expenditure in areas of greatest need, and those younger politicians with aspirations of being elected to Westminster, who generally accepted the Conservative argument that high taxes were not a solution to poverty. At the first sign of Thatcher’s government reducing the RSG Labour councillors (see Th. ), mainly in the large and often decaying urban areas, voted to increase rates to restore equity. In 1980 the Conservatives introduced legislation to “rate cap” such authorities; for every extra pound they raised from the rates the RSG was reduced by a similar sum. Local government was emasculated5.
LEAs reflected all these tensions. In the secretive negotiations which had long characterised the setting of local budgets Conservative councillors had tended to divert excessive funds to support already successful middle-class schools, while the more equality-minded Labour politicians sought to place a disproportionate amount of money amongst schools in deprived areas. It was Labour councillors who were the most vigorous critics of Conservative financial policy, while it was Conservatives (especially business people) in Labour-controlled areas who shouted loudest for a Conservative government to limit the power of LEAs to make financial decisions6. As an increasing proportion of the electorate were becoming more interested in their bank accounts than in social equality, so there was an increasing political will to denigrate “town hall” politics.
Which is why Kenneth Baker introduced legislation to enable schools who wanted to opt out of LEA control in 1988 to become Grant Maintained Schools7. Parents, not governors or the teachers, were encouraged to break free of local authority control in exchange for receiving a grant from central government which was larger than the total amount of money originally spent on that school by the LEA. To the individual school this was a deal too good to miss. The money was made up of funds that previously government would have passed to the LEA to which was added a significant bonus. Such schools found themselves with new money to paint their notice boards and carpet their libraries, but those schools which remained with the LEA saw the funds available to them reduced by the amount that the authority had lost out to the GM school. With LEAs losing the Robin Hood principle, taking from the rich to support the poor, they were setup to lose much of the justification for their existence8.
This partially explains why Baker wanted to establish inner-city technology colleges in 1987, supported by industrial sponsors so as “to show people just how awful local authority schools were, and how much better they would be if run by business people” (Th. 73). In May 1997 New Labour came to power with educational policies9 that were both an extension, and an enhancement, of recent Conservative policies. Labour placed excessive emphasis on choice, and seemed to start from the assumption that pupils needed more to motivate them than simply a good, well-balanced, rounded curriculum well taught. What pupils needed, New Labour argued, would be the opportunity to specialise in any one of a diverse range of subjects — from technology to rural studies, or from tourism to music. With the aid of the Specialist Schools Trust10 government persuaded 2,000 secondary schools to develop a specialism.
The Prime Minister announced that in July 2005 200 city academies11 would be established by 2010 as “state-of-the-art” establishments, costing upwards of twice that of a standard comprehensive school. fair enough, but only if they were likely to demonstrate what could be the shape of all good schools in the future. The Prime Minister, it was suggested, saw these as his “legacy”. But if they are, why sell them off so cheap? And why make their location totally dependent on the whim of a sponsor, and having absolutely nothing to do with any residual thinking that much disheartened LEAs (now reduced to being called local-area partnerships) might have for the well-being of their community. Is not all this a final insult to local democracy? This is serious. Has not parliament usurped the power of local government comparable to that seizure of parliamentary rights by the monarchy in the 1640s that resulted in civil war?12 83:27/8/6