Lord Harris informed the Financial Times in June 2007: 'I have a very good relationship with Andrew [Lord Adonis, then Schools Minister]. He rings me up and says, "Do you want this school?" and I ask what it's like and if it sounds like the sort of place that we are interested in I say yes.'
This quotation neatly illustrates the subjectivity and arbitrariness that is involved in the transformation of schools into academies - in effect the transference of power from locally elected bodies to business leaders. However it is not simply the initial establishment of academies that is at stake in this process, but the power relationships under which they are subsequently controlled. As lawyers have pointed out, once a school becomes an academy, education law, which regulates state schools and provides important protection to parents, students and staff, is discarded. The sponsor has almost absolute power: appointing the headteacher and (after initial transfers) other staff; and determining who will be on its board of governors, the nature of the curriculum, the design of any new buildings, and which young people to include or exclude. As many parents of children with special educational needs have discovered, it is no use lobbying your councillor if provision for your child is inadequate.
Government ministers deny that academies are a form of privatisation (despite David Blunkett's initial bluntness on first announcing that they would be 'owned and run by sponsors'). But the government defence depends on a narrow interpretation of privatisation: it argues that academies are not for profit (well, not yet); that they are funded from the public purse (but then so is the arms industry); and that they are subject to some rules regarding admissions - a concession resulting from a back bench revolt (but then all private businesses face some legal restrictions). Academies are clearly privatised bodies on any broader definition, since they are institutions that have been withdrawn from collective democratic accountability and delivered over into the power of individuals and unaccountable institutions. In all important respects, power over children's education is being handed over to a rag-tag bunch of second-hand car dealers, carpet salesmen and tax-evading city traders.
The first stage of this handover has not gone well for the government. In the absence of cutting-edge high-tech companies rushing forward to replace local authorities in the running of schools, the government was forced into what is in effect a re-launching of the process, with universities and evangelical fractions of the Church of England becoming the sponsors of choice. This has only led to new problems. Universities have been chosen as sponsors that don't even have teacher education departments, and some prestigious institutions such as Cambridge University and the Institute of Education in London have refused to participate. Principled opposition has come from the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU), and local campaign groups opposing academies have continued to grow.
Paradoxically, a few local authorities have now been accepted as sponsors - partly as a result of the government's desperation, but also as an effect of the complex hybridisation of public and private as neoliberalism continues to evolve. Within a week of hearing from a Director of Education that local councillors had outwitted the government by offering that the authority should become co-sponsors of some academies, I was emailed by a company boasting that they were installing a practice call-centre into one of those schools - 'to raise aspirations' (sic).
Similarly, Manchester's plan to co-sponsor six of its own schools as academies is tied to the vocationalising of school learning: 10-year-old children and their parents are expected to choose secondary schools on the basis of career interests. I can imagine the conversation: 'Please can I go to the Manchester Airport Academy of Travel and Tourism mummy, so that I can become a baggage handler when I grow up'. …