Inside the English Education Lab

Posted on: 16 December 2022 by Dr Kirsty Morrin in Blog

'Inside the Education Lab' white text over a photograph of Skinners' Kent Academy, as viewed from The Great Lawn. Photo by Mitchell1981 (Wikimedia Commons)
Skinners' Kent Academy, as viewed from The Great Lawn. Photo by Mitchell1981 (Wikimedia Commons)

For over 20 years, reform in the English education system has been dramatic. The introduction of the academies programme has seen a complete restructuring of the way schools in England are run and governed.

Political champions of the academies model state that they have been put in place to close pupils’ attainment gaps and raise standards. Wide scale changes to the previously established model of secondary education in the UK are both necessary and progressive. Critics of the academies programme however point out a consistent lack of evidence that these changes have worked, and highlight a series of damaging developments in the attempt.

This is where our new book, Inside the English Education Lab: critical qualitative and ethnographic perspectives on the academies comes in.

The book includes research conducted within an academy school context. This includes data from secondary academy schools, a primary academy school, a free school, and Multi Academy Trusts. Importantly to me and the editors of the collection, each author spent a prolonged time researching ‘in the field’, so actually in schools over a prolonged period of time.

This is important because evidence proving the success (or indeed failure) of schools is based on statistical data about student grades, or league tables placements. This is a particular type of data; distant from direct experience and the day-to-day working of life actually in a school setting. As our book wanted to explore the meaning behind these numbers and outcomes, we were particularly interested in how academy schools actually operate. What are the everyday lives of those working and learning in academies schools like? How do they reflect on their experience? And critically, how do we measure success or failure in the first place?

It is through such research that we learn time and again how the academies programme retrenches, rather than reforms inequalities.

In our edited book, chapters explore themes such as of a lack of autonomy (Andrew Wilkins) and democratic oversight for school leaders (Helen Ryan-Atkin and Harriet Rowley). The devalued positioning of work class communities in school settings (Katie Blood; Sarah Leaney; my own chapter) is key for the justification of the need for ‘change’ (Jodie Pennacchia). Jørgensen and Allan highlight how the Special Education Needs and Disability education offered at a ‘free school’ – a branch of academy schools- might offer a more inclusive model than other mainstream institutions.

‘Victims’ of the System

My co-editor Christy Kulz’s fieldnotes were taken at the relatively newly established ‘Academies Show’, an annual promotional event since 2010. It brings together businesspeople, politicians, and educationalists, to discuss a range of issues relating the promot¬ion of academisation and the formation of Multi Academy Trusts. Christy notes:

“PS Financials was the registration sponsor as well as the business, finance and benchmarking zone sponsor of the show. With the strap line, ‘Powering better business decisions’… Their website described how the ‘academy market’ continued to grow with cross-party political support…In the theatre Tom Clark, then head of Freedom and Autonomy for Schools National Association…The message ‘if you think you are a victim, you will be’ illuminated the large screens showing his PowerPoint presentation. Clark urged schools to take control of their situation and destiny by proactively responding to the educational landscape. It felt like a palpable climate of fear was being created amongst teachers and school management staff in the wake of austerity politics and chronic underfunding. This fear of victimhood could only be alleviated by successfully beating your competitor for scarce resources, and stood in stark opposition to any notion of collegiality amongst schools.” (pg 206)

This fieldnote was taken back in 2017, before the recent ‘cost of living crisis’ hit. This crisis emerged largely from twelve years of austerity policies, and recent articles reported that we’re heading towards a situation where up to 90% of schools will ‘run out of money’ under the new government budget.

In this emerging context the ‘academy market’ does seem to be one with scarce resources. However, I cannot help but reflect on the insidious way this becomes the ‘problem’ of schools and their workers; Clark’s words to have a more literal meaning here ‘if you think you are a victim, you will be’.

Victimhood and victimisation are interesting and contested terms. It’s fair to say schools can be ‘victims’ of an unfair budget, yet here we see that flipped the other way, and said to be a problem of pathology, one we can imagine or think our way out of.

This notion of an aspirational or growth mindset will be familiar to those who work in the education sector. These kind of ‘mindset agendas’ are explored in two chapters in the book, by Katie Blood (aspirational mindsets) and my in own chapter (entrepreneurial mindsets).

Conversely, claiming ‘victimisation’ is often articulated in right-wing discourse in derogatory terms of being ‘soft’, or ‘snowflake’-like. Calling out injustice, or relaying your own experience of injustice can be met with dismissals of ‘identity politicking’ or being part of a ‘woke’ generation (where the racialised undertones of derisions are often ignored). In education research, instead of being called ‘woke’ we’re more fondly referred to as ‘the blob’.

The Growing ‘Woke’ ‘Blob’

‘The blob’, first coined in the UK by Ofsted’s first Chief Inspector Chris Woodhead, has become synonymous with those who critique current educational reform. Michael Gove, a central engineer of the academised system we see today, extended the suggest we, ‘the blob’, are ‘enemies of promise’. More accurately, we’re just a group of critical academics, educators, journalists, and publics who call out the inequalities they see in the education system.

‘The blob’ is growing, and as ever, it is grassroots organisations leading the way:

At our recent book launch for Inside the English Education Lab, we were joined by guest speaker, Professor Helen Gunter, who – as she told us on the day - is a proud member of ‘the blob’. As well as publishing extensive critical research on academisation, Helen and a range of other educationalist were signatories to a pledge to ‘Stand up for Education’, backing a functional and just comprehensive system.

“Despite a lack of formal political opposition to academisation, opposition has been taking place through networks of parents, teachers, youth workers, students and concerned citizens (or what would be derogatorily referenced as ‘the Blob’). Groups like the Anti-Academies Alliance, the Local Schools Network and numerous education unions have been consistent and vocal critics of academisation as a concept.” (Pg 206)

One of the most prominent cases of organised resistance to some academy structures came from students at Pimlico Academy. Pimlico students organised a petition, citing hijab and hair policies to be racially discriminatory. They further organised a peaceful sit in protest and symbolically burned a Union Jack flag (an act that drew the most media attention). Notably, this is not the only case of calling out racism in academies, for example see this Ofsted report on bullying and racism.

This does not mean it was easy to get their case heard and taking more controversial action became part of the students’ collective struggle. Initially the protests were met with threats of permanent exclusion. We use this example in the book to again highlight the contradictions of what it means to point out injustice. As we state:

“Arguably, the student response could be described as highlighting the very qualities that headteacher Smith hoped to cultivate – namely the production of ‘thoughtful’, ‘interested’ and ‘responsible citizens’.” (p. 215)

Reclaiming what means to be a ‘victim’ or a ‘responsible citizen’ in the current context is an important political act. Adopting a critical voice in these debates is necessary if we are to have a more just education system that works for all.


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Dr Kirsty Morrin is a Lecturer in Sociology, University of Liverpool. She is co-editor of Inside the English Education Lab: critical qualitative and ethnographic perspectives on the academies. Her current research explores educational inequalities in the academies programme, and entrepreneurship education. Her monograph Academies, Entrepreneurship and Inequality: The Politics of Successful Failure will be published by Bristol University Press in 2023.