The Great City Academy Fraud

Author(s) Francis Beckett
Publisher Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd.
Published 2007
Pages 207
Price £16.99
ISBN 9780826495136
Reviewed by Miss Victoria Elliott
University of Oxford
Review published 15 May 2009

Francis Beckett is certainly passionate on the subject of city academies, but from the title onwards, it’s clear the way in which his passion drives him. The Great City Academy Fraud is a wide-ranging critique of the Government’s flagship schools programme, beginning with an historical overview of the City Technology Colleges (CTCs) which the Labour party criticised while in opposition. Beckett draws a series of parallels between CTCs and city academies, now simply ‘academies’, before subjecting both the process of opening academies and the schools themselves to a thorough analysis of their failings.

Each chapter handles a different aspect of what Beckett considers to be the fraud of the academies programme, from the background of the sponsors, which he links to the investigation into ‘loans for honours’ which was current at the time he was writing, to the involvement of religious groups in sponsoring academies. He also explores thoroughly the discrepancy between the mantra that academies replace failing schools and the reality of a system where the presumption is in favour of opening an academy whatever the situation. He explores a number of cases where schools have been targeted to be the sites of new academies despite ‘failing to fail’ as he puts it. There is a thorough exploration of the differences between academies and normal state schools, which is as clear as it can be, given that the legal basis of the academies is dependent upon their funding agreements, which are usually kept secret.

The picture that Beckett reveals is shocking. For an investment of ‘up to’ £2 million, which can be in kind rather than in cash, the sponsor gains control of a school which the taxpayer will proceed to fund to the tune of another twenty or thirty million. Many of the academies, supposedly the ideal model of education in twenty-first century Britain, have failed to improve on the results of the schools which they replaced, and in some cases have received devastating criticism from Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services & Skills). In some areas, despite heavy parental opposition, rushed consultations have still resulted in the imposition of unwanted academies. Although much of what he writes has already appeared in the press, the cumulative effect of the various scandals and protests astonishes and appals. The most devout proponent of New Labour and academies could not fail to be stopped a little short in their tracks.

The rhetoric is compelling. Despite this, the book fails to entirely convince: the very passion in Beckett’s writing is enough to alienate a thoughtful reader. This is a polemic, vitriolic in its dislike of the schools which are its subject, and of all those involved with them. It is hard to believe, therefore, that the book’s conclusions are unbiased and balanced. Such doubts are amplified by the kind of calculation which leads Beckett to state that the cost per place at an academy is ‘almost double’ that at a normal state school, when the figures are £21,000 and £14,000 respectively. Similarly the book focuses on the potential for corruption allowed by the unprecedented level of control afforded to the individual sponsor, in particular painting a fearsome picture of the impact which some evangelical Christian individuals and organisations may have as sponsors of academies. I would find this more compelling if I did not know a researcher who has found that the response of pupils in these academies to be one of indifference, instead of the indoctrination which Beckett fears. One of the weaknesses of his book is that it does not engage with the research literature in any way, although frequent reference is made to Select Committee evidence, newspaper journalism and NUT (National Union of Teachers) literature. The relationship with the NUT has become a little incestuous – rather similar to the way that Beckett regards the relationships between sponsors and the government – in the sycophantic cover quote and foreword from the General Secretary of the NUT, and the way in which Beckett has relied on the NUT’s document Academies: Looking Beyond the Spin.

Aimed at the general reader, rather than the educationalist or the politician, The Great City Academy Fraud is lucid and clear in its writing. In some places it can be even too simple: so determined is Beckett to get his message across that he repeats it, almost word for word in places. On academies which have paid consultancy fees to the companies owned by their sponsors, I can quote without checking that these ‘were not put out to tender, as is a legal requirement for other state schools’ because of the number of times the sentence appears. The effect is of a book which has been written piecemeal, chapter by chapter, perhaps based on the author’s journalism, instead of being considered as a whole. In addition the employment of all the arguments which can be marshalled, weak as well as strong, leads to the feeling of a scattergun approach. None of this does the subject matter justice, ironically given the author’s clear intention.

This is a book which would be of interest to every prospective education researcher, every prospective teacher, every parent considering their choice of secondary school, as well as anyone interested in politics or simply looking for ammunition against the current government. It’s all one-way in its coverage, but is so blatant about that direction that it is impossible to be simply taken in. And while I take Beckett’s opinions with a pinch of salt, I now regard the academies programme with a much greater cynicism. Sifting the information from the rhetoric takes time, but it is certainly worthwhile.