Flow of Ideas
The Wilby Thesis: A Backward Step for School Privatisation?

Glenn Rikowski, London, 18th August 2007

Four Critics of New Labour’s Educational Crapocalypse

Over the last decade of New Labour government I have been collecting material on the business takeover of schools in England. For me, of the journalists reporting on this phenomenon (even if they don’t call it so) during Blair’s reign, Jim Kelly, Jon Boone, Francis Beckett and Peter Wilby have been at the forefront. Jim Kelly, former education correspondent of the Financial Times, holds iconic status for me. His well-researched and poignant keyboarding got to the heart of what is happening to our schools; though of course he was utterly professional and only presented the facts – which, for me, were enough. Kelly’s knowledge of the ‘education business’ and the ‘business of education’ was peerless. He retired a few years ago and I miss his brilliant work. He was succeeded as education correspondent at the Financial Times by Jon Boone, who in my opinion over the last few years has developed into the best journalist on education in the UK.

After these two, Francis Beckett and Peter Wilby have produced some tremendous work. Beckett’s pieces on the doomed Education Action Zones (EAZs) in the New Statesman were joyously wicked. It was to Peter Wilby’s credit, as editor of the New Statesman throughout most of the Blair government that Beckett’s incisive writing backed by meticulous research was allowed to flow to the extent that it did. In addition, Wilby has produced some great writing on education over many years; in the New Statesman but also in The Guardian, The Independent and the Times Educational Supplement (TES). However, a recent contribution by Wilby in the TES (Wilby, 2007) fails to live up to his usual top-notch standards, in my view. Indeed, his ideas can be viewed as misleading and encouraging a certain complacency regarding the business takeover of schools in England.

The Wilby Thesis

On the back of an article by Fraser Nelson in The Spectator, Wilby argues that New Labour’s Academies programme [1] has been undermined during Gordon Brown’s administration. He points to Nelson’s view that:

“… under Gordon Brown, the city academies are being strangled out of meaningful existence. “Lord Adonis [schools minister overseeing the initiative] is running a ghost programme. It is over.” [as argued by Fraser, in Wilby, 2007]”

The Academies programme appears to be over for three main reasons, notes Wilby. First, Academies were set up as ‘independent’ state schools; specifically, as being independent of local authority control. Now Academies can only start up with local authority approval. Also, local authorities (along with colleges and universities) can now sponsor Academies themselves. Academies coming on stream might no longer be so ‘independent’. Secondly, Academies will be subject to the new fair admissions code – and cannot so easily cherry pick pupils. Thirdly, Academies will have to follow the National Curriculum more closely, thereby undercutting their mission to ‘innovate’. Overall, they will be more hemmed in by rules and regulations. On the basis of these considerations, Wilby argues that:

“… the central idea behind academies has indeed finished: the involvement of private business, which was expected to put in £2 million in sponsorship in return for control … [And] … In future, it seems, most new academies will be sponsored by universities, colleges and schools that will not need to put up the £2m. The risk of wholesale privatisation of state secondaries, with local education authorities withering away, has receded.”

This last point is the “Wilby Thesis”: i.e. that what is happening to Academies means that ‘the risk of wholesale privatisation’ of state secondary schools in England has receded. It is this thesis that is misleading, in my view.

What Will Be, Wilby

There are a number of points I would like to make regarding the “Wilby Thesis”. First, as I have argued previously (in Rikowski, 2007a and 2007b), given the cash-for-honours scandal (which involved some Academies) and the expansion of the Academies programme from 200 to 400 (endorsed by Brown) there was always going to be a problem getting enough business sponsors on the basis of them paying £2 million to start these schools. If Blair was still Prime Minister he may also have been forced to open the door to local authorities, colleges and universities as sponsors in order to hit the 400 target.

Secondly, it depends on what Wilby means by “private business”. If he means companies then it is true that very few have got substantially involved in sponsoring Academies. However, rich individuals– philanthropists – with their own companies or business interests in the background, have got involved to a greater extent. That few companies as opposed to individual entrepreneurs and philanthropists have got more involved in Academies is no doubt regrettable for New Labour. The strategy of “habituation” (see Rikowski, 2005), of using Academies as part of a programme of getting schools used to working with business has not been conspicuously successful. Wilby also ignores the non-profit making charities and religious foundations that have got involved in sponsoring Academies.

Thirdly, the ‘big bang’ scenario – with vast swathes of schools suddenly being run by companies for profit – has only rarely been on the agenda. True, edubusinesses have been asking for this for more than a decade. But for only a few brief periods did it seem a possibility; during 2000-2001 (leading up to Education Act 2002), and in 2005 when Ministers wanted a large scale business takeover of schools via the White Paper of October 2005 but concluded it was politically unacceptable. The risk of “wholesale privatisation” has been a threat, but to varying degrees at various times. Wilby glosses over these subtleties.

However, Wilby’s notion of “privatisation” itself is vague and misleading. On my analysis, there is virtually no danger of “wholesale privatisation” in the classical sense; that is, state secondary schools being sold off to companies who then own them. What is at stake is the business takeover of schools, where companies run schools for profit on a contract (see Rikowski, 2006). It is this we need to be vigilant on, and this threat has not receded. We have the drip, drip yet steady progress of this capital-friendly trend, which operates on several fronts, and in which the Academies programme has currently only a minor role to play. Furthermore, Wilby does not say how the Academies programme links to privatisation processes – in either the classical or business takeover senses.

Wilby also misses out on the significance of opposition to Academies. The campaigns against specific Academies and the national Anti Academies Alliance activities [2] are beginning to bite.

In his superficial analysis, Wilby deflects attention from the business takeover of schools, which is developing on the basis of a range of policies and initiatives. The plastic demon of “classical privatisation” regarding schools invoked by Wilby camouflages the real and vital spirits of capital at work in the schools system. Brown is not dismantling Blair’s public services ‘reforms’, but he is reconfiguring them.


[1] For a summary of the Academies programme see Rikowski (2007a, Note 3).

[2] The Anti Academies Alliance web site is at, http://www.antiacademies.org.uk/


Nelson, F. (2007) Politics: Beneath the dynamic surface, Brown is dismantling Blair’s public service reforms, The Spectator, 21st July, online at: http://www.spectator.co.uk/archive/the-week/52028/politics.thtml

Rikowski, G. (2005) Habituation of the Nation: School Sponsors as Precursors to the Big Bang? 19th October, London, online at: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=Habituation%20of%20the%20Nation

Rikowski, G. (2006) On the Capitalisation of Schools in England, London, 1st November, online at The Flow of Ideas: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=On%20the%20Capitalisation%20of%20Schools%20in%20England

Rikowski, G. (2007a) Brown’s PFI Monster Creates Education Spending and Policy Crises, 31st July, London, online at: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=Brown%20PFI%20Monster

Rikowski, G. (2007b) An Educational Mansion House for Business, 10th August, London, online at: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=An%20Educational%20Mansion%20House%20for%20Business

Wilby, P. (2007) Progressive twist in the academies tale? Times Educational Supplement, 3rd August, p.15.

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