Just like Premier League clubs, English schools are now subject to narrow control by businessmen

Warwick Mansell · 27 April 2021

Education journalist Warwick Mansell wonders why there is not similar popular outrage over academies policy, as there was over the doomed European Super League.

It was something of a media feeding frenzy. An institution, under the control of a wealthy businessman and his family, presided over developments which made those who depended on the institution feel extremely unhappy.

Stakeholders protested, vigorously. To critics, the saga seemed to underline just how out of touch those in charge were with grassroots views. And there was a high-profile u-turn.

Am I talking about goings-on at a football club – perhaps Manchester United – in recent weeks, as the club, controlled by the Glazer family, sought to enter the Super League, only to join others in backing down as fans howled in outrage?

No, the above describes the situation at a taxpayer-funded school, Pimlico Academy in Westminster, central London. This was founded and is still presided over by the Conservative peer and former minister, Lord Nash and his wife, Lady Caroline Nash.

Extensive media coverage has centred on student protests, at this ethnically very diverse institution, about contentious developments including the introduction of uniform and hairstyle policies which were said to be racist – this is denied by the school – and the alleged cancellation of black history month. Teachers are to vote on taking strike action from next week.

Following extensive public debate, the school backed down on some issues, with the uniform rules changed and with greater engagement in issues of racial justice, such as discussions about the death of George Floyd, now being experienced at the school.

Institutional distance

But how did Pimlico get itself into this crisis? Well, the academies policy – through which more than 9,000 state-funded schools in England are now governed – allows an institutional distance from communities which seems to be shown up by cases such as this.

Under academisation, schools can now be effectively controlled by individuals, their family members and their friends, as small groups of people – they might be headteachers, religious figures or business people – can be given the right to appoint most of the directors of academy trusts, which in turn then govern the schools.

Communities get little say in strategic decision-making. The only key players are trust boards, which as described above can be tightly controlled by individuals, and the Department for Education. While board meetings and government decisions about which trusts are given which schools take place in private (a lack of transparency, by the way, which feeds concerns – now being voiced on a broader scale around government policymaking as a whole – about cronyism in decision-making).

In the case of Pimlico, since leaving its local authority in 2008 it has been part of a trust called Future Academies. This was set up by Lord Nash, a private equity luminary and Lady Nash, a former stockbroker. Lord Nash has donated to the trust in the past.

In return, the control the couple wield over Future and the 10 schools it now runs, seems more or less absolute. Of Future’s five controlling members – with the powers to appoint and dismiss its directors, who in turn set the strategy for the organisation – two are Lord and Lady Nash themselves, while at least two of the remaining three have been close associates of Lord Nash.

Among Future’s six current directors, two are the Nashes themselves, while a further three used to work with Lord Nash when he was academies minister at the Department for Education. Lord Nash is both chair of the directors and chair of the “local governing body” at Pimlico Academy.

Lady Nash has been described as the driving force in the development of the schools’ curricula, which itself has been controversial.

Perhaps as if to underline the sense of a lack of representative link between those in control of Pimlico Academy and its community, no-one from an ethnic minority background features either on Future’s board or among Pimlico’s senior management, whereas only 16.5 per cent of its pupils are classed, in government statistics, as “white British”.

Wealthy control

Tight control of English schools by individuals has become possible on a wide scale through the academies policy. In 2019, I revealed how schools educating more than 100,000 pupils were in the effective control of wealthy businessmen, who have been handed power over academy trusts by being able to appoint a majority on their governing boards.

England’s second-largest academy chain, the Harris Federation, which runs 50 schools, sees its titular “sponsor”, the carpet magnate Lord Harris of Peckham, having the right to appoint up to 32 of its directors, with this power passing to his family members after he dies.

To return to the Super League, unhappiness with the ability of the tycoons in charge of these clubs unilaterally to seek to break away from football’s established playing structure has led to calls for a German-style ownership model, where fans control 51 per cent of the shares.

The same argument about control should hold in relation to English schools, where, in thousands of institutions, people depending on them have been effectively disenfranchised. No other country in the world has a schools policy quite like this, and there seems no international rush to copy it.

Like the ownership of Premier League football clubs, the academies policy allows too narrow a control of institutions which are vital to their local communities. Its structure is fundamentally wrong. It therefore needs to change: taxpayers, parents, pupils and staff need much greater influence over the schools the public funds and depends upon.

Warwick Mansell is a freelance journalist, who founded and writes for the investigative website Education Uncovered.

people at work

Education and children's services

Prospect represents professionals in education, children’s services, early years, commissioning and children’s social care.