Flow of Ideas

Academy Chains: Building on the Neoliberal Education Policy of Tony Blair

Glenn Rikowski, London, 3rd June 2007


In previous works (Rikowski 2005a-c), I have sought to emphasise the importance of federations [1] of schools for the business takeover of schools [2]. Basically, rather than running a single or a few schools on individual contracts for profit, companies wanting a serious stake in the schools’ business realised that they needed ‘chains’ of schools so that economies of scale could be made, profits could be skimmed off from each school and cross-subsidisation could take place. A few weeks ago, the Conservative Party upped the ante by announcing that it would seek to allow federations of Academies – New Labour’s flagship (and hugely expensive) programme of new schools for those deemed to be failing and in areas of relative disadvantage, economically as well as educationally [3]. What are the politics behind this announcement?

Conservatives in Blairite Clothing?

Undoubtedly, one of the motivations was to flag up that any future Conservative administration would seek to de-regulate the Academies Programme for the benefit of business interests:

“Education providers and schools sponsors should be allowed to set up national chains of city academies under a single contract, the Conservatives will say today” (Hall, 2007).

The single contract is the key here: at present Academy sponsors (companies, rich philanthropists, charities or religious foundations) have to sign up for one at a time. Multi-Academy contracts would be a very business-friendly move, and it would send a message to the business community that would remind them that the ‘real party of business’ is the Conservative Party. However, the Conservatives (or Tories, as they often called by political journalists here in the UK) are also:

“Seeking to outflank Gordon Brown, the likely new prime minister, on school reform, [and] the Tories also want to boost the academy programme by scrapping the requirement for sponsors of the semi-independent state schools to contribute at least £2m to each project” (Hall, 2007).

Thus, the Conservatives want to take on Blair’s New Labour mantle [4] in schools and appear more committed to pushing forward Blair’s legacy in education than his successor. They hope this will cause splits between Blair’s New Labourites and Brown’s crew within the Labour Party. The proposal to scrap the £2 million contribution for Academy sponsors is particularly concerning. Sponsors currently have to fork out £2 million to head an Academy; though in practice they often pay much less than that (see Beckett, 2007). For their money, they get control over staff selection, pay and conditions, and they can mould the National Curriculum to their desires to some extent, and, most importantly, set the school ethos and values. They do all this by having a controlling say in the governing body. Philanthropists, some of them steeped in Christian fundamentalism, and various religious organisations, have taken advantage of this situation to promote their views, with the teaching of Intelligent Design being a key battleground. Now the Tories want to yield all this power to such folks without them having to pay a bean!

The Conservatives were keen to call Brown’s bluff on whether he would support the expansion of Blair’s Academies Programme from 200 such schools (the original plan) to 400. Brown affirmed that he would ride with the 400 on 15th May (Hall, 2007), making it more difficult for the Tory strategy but going along with a socially divisive, educationally unjustifiable and massively expensive programme by default! Speaking at a Confederation of British Industry conference on public services on 16th May, David Willetts (Conservative shadow education secretary) that:

“… the Tories are the true inheritors of Tony Blair’s market-based education reforms, which must be pursued to boost social mobility” (noted by Hall, 2007).

Thus, just as Blair took over and extended Thatcher and Major’s Conservative neoliberal education policy, so Willetts argues that the Blair version of neoliberal education reform (commodification, capitalisation, markets, and competition) must be built on and extended by the Conservatives. Neoliberal education policy appears to be the only game in town, as Gordon Brown does not provide any Old Labour alternative regarding education policy at all. This is all Tory opportunism, inept politics and wishful thinking. Brown is wedded to neoliberal reforms in education too, though he may be a tad too cautious for business interests on this. The arguments are only about the pace of change and the presentation of retro, neoliberal education policies; not their validity or apparent necessity – There is No Alternative (TINA) is the key here. But none of this deters Willetts:

“The next Conservative government can use Tony Blair’s legislation to deliver the promise of Tony Blair’s rhetoric – self-governing independent state schools” (Willetts in Hall, 2007).

The legislation that grounded the business takeover of schools in particular was the Education Act 2002 and the Education and Inspections Act of 2006. However, I have argued that these Acts (along with other New Labour legislation), are insufficient for providing a sound legislative framework for the business takeover of schools. Willetts and the Tories have much to do – in particular, doing something about limiting the number of schools that can be part of a federation and providing the legislative framework that would support vast numbers of schools being run on a contract for profit. This is what businesses wanting to exploit the ‘education sector’ require.

Conclusion: The Jesus and Mary Academy Chains

The Conservatives no doubt believe that they playing a very clever game over Academies. On the one hand, their stance on Academies is designed to gain favour from business in general and businesses interested in running schools for profit. On the other hand the Conservatives’ Academy proposals seek to drive a wedge between the supporters of Blair and Brown (with the feeble Left in the Labour Party exposed as either an irrelevance in their sidelining or backing Brown, thereby tarring him with the Old Labour brush). Finally, the Tory outlook also sucks up to the religion lobby and Christian fundamentalists in particular, hopefully gaining their support (and better still, money) in the battles to come.

Yet if Gordon Brown turns out to have no problems with following in the footsteps of Blair as he treads the neoliberal path in education policy, then the Tories’ strategy collapses. I can see no evidence that Brown will draw a line in the sand regarding intensifying commodification, marketisation and competition in the delivery of schools services. He will be a friend to those companies who want to run schools for profit, I am sure. But I would love to be surprised.


[1] For material on the nature of federations of schools in England and their origin and genesis, see Rikowski (2005a).

[2] For clarification regarding what I mean by the ‘business takeover of schools’ see Rikowski (2006).

[3] For those not familiar with New Labour’s Academy Programme, see Rikowski (2005c) for an outline and Beckett (2007) for a detailed analysis and critique of Academies.

[4] A number of press reports of the last few weeks here in the UK have argued that the Conservative Party leader, David Cameron is trying hard to present himself as the next Tony Blair and defender of the New Labour programme of ‘modernisation’ (read neoliberalism) regarding public services. This strategy is allied with attempting to paint Gordon Brown (who will takeover from Tony Blair as Prime Minister) as very ‘Old Labour’; antagonistic to neoliberal ‘reforms’ in the public services and too cosy with the trade unions. But Brown, remember, resuscitated the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) for public sector capital projects, including school buildings (see Rikowski, 2005b, pp.10-19).


Beckett, F. (2007) The Great City Academy Fraud, London: Continuum.

Hall, B. (2007) Tories seek to boost academy programme, Financial Times, 16th May, p.4.

Rikowski, G. (2005a) Federation Starships? The Evolution of Federations of Schools in England, a paper presented at the Education Studies / Education Policy Research Seminar, University College Northampton, School of Education, 24th February, online at: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=The%20Evolution%20of%20Federations%20of%20Schools

Rikowski, G. (2005b) Silence on the Wolves: What is Absent in New Labour’s Five Year Strategy for Education, Education Research Centre, Occasional Paper, University of Brighton, May.

Rikowski, G. (2005c) The Capitalisation of Schools: Federations and Academies, London, 1st October, online at: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=The%20Capitalisation%20of%20Schools%20-%20Federations%20and%20Academies

Rikowski, G. (2006) On the Capitalisation of Schools in England, Education Studies, School of Education, University of Northampton, 1st November, online at: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=On%20the%20Capitalisation%20of%20Schools%20in%20England

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