November 18, 2015, by Public Social Policy

Academy schools and the first 100 days of Cameron’s Majority Conservative Government


by Jodie Pennacchia

The University of Nottingham conference What’s New About ‘Blue-Collar Conservatism’?  The First 100 Days of Cameron’s Majority Conservative Government was a thought-provoking start to the new academic year.  For those of us with an interest in education policy it provided an opportunity to explore what is unfolding and what we might expect for our schools over the forthcoming months.  It enabled us to do so against a backdrop of the wider ideological sway of Cameron’s government, sensitising us to some of the continuities between educational policies and discourses, and those affecting the wider set of public and welfare services.


My research concerns academy schools, and in particular the original and ever-present strand of this policy that focuses on changing the fortunes of historically ‘under performing’ schools and communities.  In the build-up to the General Election a couple of things emerged as particularly noteworthy in the Conservative government’s take on this area of policy.  First we were told that the focus on so-called ‘failing’ schools would continue but with a renewed zeal.  We were reminded that academy status is the main route to solving the problem of school failure, therefore under a Conservative government the ‘academisation process’  would be  called upon more often and implemented more quickly in order to ‘transform’ more schools into high achieving institutions.  Second, that celebrated figures from the academy movement would be parachuted into these ‘failing’ schools so that those who have made academy status work can share their wisdom with less successful schools.


The first of these policies has materialised.  The Education and Care Bill has indeed reinvigorated the long-standing link between academisation and the turnaround of ‘failing’ schools.  The key change here is that the democratic processes through which school staff, pupils, parents and members of the community can challenge academisation can now be bypassed.  The rationale for this, Nicky Morgan argues, is that these processes are slowing down the saving of schools, which means children spend longer being educated in ‘failing’ institutions.  These democratic processes are therefore getting in the way of the social justice that academisation aims to bring about.  Democracy is, in this version, repositioned as bureaucratic, as red tape, as a stifler of social justice.


The second of the proposals – to parachute academy super-heads and super-teachers into failing schools – has not yet materialised.  However, if we look at the number of individuals who have emerged as educational heroes through the academies programme, it is a fair assumption that this is a policy that may resurface at some point over the course of this government.


Both of these policy tweaks suggest that what we have seen in the first 100 days of Cameron’s majority government amounts to a continuation of a particular narrative about academies.  This emotively framed narrative pivots around the idea of a ‘turnaround’ or ‘transformation’ of  ‘failing’ schools.  By focusing on failing schools, more likely to be positioned in economically challenged areas of the country, the government ascribes academy status with the power to fight educational inequality.   Through this the Conservative government has captured and reframed the discourse of social justice in education. What schools in these areas need, we are told, is the freedom to do what it takes to shift stubborn cultures of low aspiration that plague them and their surrounding communities.  Through this policy schools will take greater responsibility for transforming the fate of young people in some of the most disadvantaged communities in the country.


Shifts in the first 100 days of Cameron’s government  – both in actual policies and in discourses about policies – have continued this particular narrative about schools in areas of deprivation that aren’t reaching bench mark standards.  What the discussions at the conference illuminated for me was the symmetries between education policies and discourses – academies being a pertinent example – and the assumptions that underpin a range of other stories that are flourishing under a Conservative administration across public and welfare services.


Here I am talking about stories that position those living in poverty, and the services that work to support them, as ‘lacking’.  These stories are underpinned by an ideology that is tough on what it perceives to be ‘failure’, which has amounted to being tough on people living in poverty.   Across them we see a demand, for people who are struggling, to take greater responsibility for themselves and for their fortunes.  It echoes the Broken Britain discourse which, although not directly referred to anymore, bubbles away as the underpinning thesis of Conservative public sector and welfare reforms.


For those of us interested in education policy, this reminds us that our analysis should not remove schools from the wider political and social contexts in which they operate.  Instead, schools are intimately linked with the wider set of stories that are told about social policies, and those affected by them.  It reminds analysts of social policy to step back from time to time from their focused areas of study to consider how these relate to wider ideologies, and the narratives that sustain them.  In shifting the level of analysis we take, we can open up new ideas and lines of argument in our work.  In understanding the way different policy areas speak to and across one another, we can create more opportunities to question and challenge in more coherent and joined-up ways, the stories that are told about the most vulnerable people in our societies, and those who work to support them.


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Posted in Education policyGeneralSocial Justice