An ethnographic study of relays, connective strategies and regulated participation
England has long been a ‘laboratory’ for experimenting with structured incentives to compel, among other configurations, the organisation of schools as businesses. The focus of this chapter concerns a recent market-based experiment in education in England called the academies programme. The academies programme makes it possible for schools to operate outside their Local Education Authorities (LEAs) as private enterprises or ‘state-funded independent schools’ with significant responsibility for management and accountability delegated to school leaders and governors. From this perspective, the academies programme is a continuation of the idea of ‘co-steering’ or ‘co-governance’ inasmuch as academy status removes the requirement for the administration of ‘needs’ through the bureaucratic centralism of LEAs and instead empowers schools to consensually work with stakeholders to produce flexible, responsive models of service delivery. Yet, as this chapter shows, school autonomy among academies is conditional on the attraction of suitably skilled school leaders and governors who can effectively deploy prescriptions and solutions for ‘effective governance’, which includes conditioning certain people to stay out of governance. In some cases, academy structures resemble the same techno-bureaucratic settlements they were meant to replace and improve, namely LEAs, albeit lacking the mandate or incentives to provide strong democratic accountability based on principles of citizen participation and community voice (Wilkins, 2016, 2019a). The suggestion here is that the academies programme has become a target of political control from the centre and business saturation despite claims that academy status works to depoliticise and deregulate schools.
This concluding chapter charts how the goal of total system academisation remains the Conservative government’s goal in the face of scant party-political opposition; however, grassroots opposition to these social and cultural interventions continues. The chapter explores how the privatisation of education structures and the narrowing of democratic participation ties to authoritarianism by reflecting on ethnographic exchanges at the Academies Show. It continues by examining the relationship between academisation and the increasing institution of detailed, rigid uniforms and punitive behaviour policies including isolation booth and practices of off-rolling and exclusion. The chapter concludes by analysing the connection between nationalism, racialisation and authoritarian educational forms through recent and well-publicised staff and student protests at Pimlico Academy in London that critically interrogate the norms promoted through these structures.
Critical ethnography, entrepreneurship education and inequalities
This chapter draws on research in Milltown Community Academy, a Northern secondary school that houses an ‘entrepreneurship specialism’. Overall, the chapter makes two contributions; firstly, it presents data that evidences retrenched inequality at Milltown Academy, and secondly it makes a methodological case for critical ethnography. Empirically, the chapter examines Milltown Academy’s entrepreneurial agenda in practice. In the academy ‘entrepreneurship education’ is formally embedded in the school’s ethos and curriculum. It is also realised through a ‘real-world’ initiative that allows local and student start-up businesses to operate from within the school building. Throughout, the chapter highlights processes by which ‘race’ and class inequalities are (re)produced in and through these entrepreneurship education practices. Methodologically, data in the chapter are drawn from critical ethnographic research collected at the institution over a year-long period. Bringing together methods and theory, the chapter draws on critical traditions in theories of sociology and education that centre inequality and ‘contradiction’. Specifically, the chapter devises and operationalises a series of ‘contradictions’ it names as ‘keyoxymorons’ to think, research and write through complex, and simultaneous struggles with inequality in the academy school and beyond. For example, the keyoxymoron ‘successful-failure’ is deployed to explore and unpack socio-historic discourses of ‘success’ attached to the academy, while simultaneously illustrating how some of these narratives of ‘success’ work to encompass, distort and ignore ‘failure’.
Inclusion has been a key concern for researchers exploring the impact of free schools in England since their introduction in 2010. However, discussions of inclusion have mostly centred on structural issues of social justice and equality, more specifically whether free schools are located in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, whether schools operate fair and inclusive admission policies, and whether parents and children of disadvantaged backgrounds are equally able to access the schools. Not much has been written about what actually happens at the schools in terms of more micro-level day-to-day practices and interactions. This chapter reports on a project carried out at a secondary free school in 2016–2018, using qualitative and ethnographic methods to examine the views and experiences of teachers, school staff, parents and children, particularly in relation to inclusion and children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). With reference to social capital theory, the chapter discusses the extent to which the school was able to use its free school status and particular ‘freedoms’ to foster inclusive practice and strategies. The chapter critically considers the free school programme in relation to the inclusion of SEND students, but also explores the possibility that mainstream schools may draw on experiences developed within free schools to strengthen inclusive practices and strategies. The chapter furthermore outlines the main challenges experienced by staff in developing an inclusive school and reflects on some of the difficulties of fostering inclusion within an increasingly competitive and performance based educational system.
This chapter, consisting of ethnographic fieldwork, explores a newly converted academy having replaced a former ‘failing’ school situated in a marginalised town in the Midlands. Through its ethnographic methodological approach, the study mobilises Bourdieu’s conceptual tools to examine the everyday lived experiences of the academy’s staff and its working-class students. While claims have been made that the academy programme is indeed ‘working miracles’ (Cameron, 2012) in regard to facilitating ‘successful’ outcomes in marginalised locales, findings from this academy identify that the relatively unchanged social milieu in which the academy is situated remains formative in the imagined futures of its students. Thus, when the academy and policy expectations come up against the localised material and economic realities, the transformative impact of the academy, while offering beneficial forms of capital, remains limited. The research therefore underscores the necessity that when questioning whether the academy agenda can and does act as a generative force in terms of social justice one must explore each academy individually through a unique contextual lens. The chapter continues by arguing that the more meritocratic discourses and authoritarian modes of governance found within the academies programme, including at this academy, can be said to have preceded much of the more explicitly authoritarian turn we are currently witnessing in broader politics.
Inside the English education lab shows how critical qualitative methodologies work to illuminate and interrogate the everyday life of England’s privatised educational landscape. England has garnered a global reputation as a key proponent of education policy reforms defined by high-stakes accountability, claims of greater school autonomy and a centralised governance structure. Qualitative and ethnographic methods with their focus on practices unfolding over time and across particular situated spaces considers academisation in ways that depart from benchmarks and Ofsted ratings. The collection counters academisation’s contradictory assertion that quantitative data is the singular measure of value. The book makes a pivotal contribution to gauging some of the social and cultural effects of academisation through its reflexive focus on the practical ambiguities and incongruities that result as policy translates into practice. It explores how academisation (re)positions policies and publics through new modes of governance, it examines strategies employed by students and teachers in situ, and interrogates how institutions are being produced through space, discourse and practice. This is the first book to bring together innovative new qualitative research on academies and free schools by early career academics. The research traverses numerous geographical and social contexts within England. It provides a valuable viewpoint that reaches beyond policy claims and rhetoric by focusing on the everyday and often ambiguous practices operating within England’s rapidly academising education system.
Doing critical qualitative and ethnographic work across an academised educational landscape
This introduction explores the evolution and exponential growth of the academies programme as both a policy and social intervention over past 12 years. The chapter covers the development of the Multi-Academy Trust framework and how Local Authorities are remade. Through this process, historical moral panics around education provision and Thatcherite reforms are revisited and tied to an increasingly authoritarian present. The rationales used to support academisation are fluctuating and highly contingent, as the chapter explores how academisation ties to neoliberalism as it relocates schools from the public sphere to a less accessible patchwork of privatised spaces while also claiming to promote social justice. England displays a hyper-realised version of a wider international policy reform movement, whereby this reform strategy relies on evidencing continual progress through comparable quantifiable data presented as objective and neutral. This chapter emphasises how the book steers away from reductive quantitative measures to train its focus on a careful qualitative attention to the everyday life of academy schools across England. The chapter interrogates how knowledge is produced and attempts to destabilise dominant narratives by highlighting how critical qualitative and ethnographic methodologies can yield crucial insights into the project of academisation.
Ethnography, Foucault and the study of policy production
This chapter presents the intertwining of ethnography and Foucault’s thinking tools as a methodology for studying the academies policy. Drawing on ethnographic research in an underperforming school that had recently become an academy (Eastbank Academy), the chapter explores relationship(s) between Foucault’s work and ethnographic approaches in order to make three arguments about how the academies policy is produced. First, this methodology facilitates analysis of the complex, multi-level and multi-modal nature of policy, enabling an account of the linguistic, material, spatial and pedagogical shaping of the academy school. Second, this methodological pairing shapes an analysis that moves beyond the binaries of compliance and resistance to explicate the different and contradictory ways school stakeholders engage with the academies policy. Third, the chapter discusses the importance of situated study for understanding oppressive arrangements, drawing on data extracts to illustrate the unjust potential of the production of academy status for some young people. Through the chapter this methodological combination is presented as capable of capturing the complexity of policy production, demonstrating how it informed the analysis of the contradictory ways that ‘change’ was present and presented in Eastbank Academy, why these contradictions existed, and their effects. Meanwhile, the potential incongruences of this methodological pairing – for example, the historically different positionings of power and the subject in ethnographic approaches and Foucault’s work – are ventured not as issues to be resolved but as points to be interrogated as a source of new possibilities for policy analysis.
Discipline, misrecognition and resistance in an English academy school
This chapter considers the impact ‘diversification’ of education through academisation has on the school as a field within which particular formations of self are produced and reproduced. Based on ethnographic fieldwork on an English council estate and in the primary school located on the estate, this chapter explores the transformation of education within neoliberal logics, where dominant discourses of responsibilisation and choice are mediated through localised constructions of community provision. It aims to foreground the processes through which the school reifies an estate culture as defined by ‘lack’ through accounts of ‘what these kids need’. The chapter argues that the narrowing conceptualisation of education within processes of academisation socially produce the body through processes of (mis)recognition. It also explores the ways in which difference is read onto the body within a social context. Through analysis of the disciplining of embodied practice within Estate Primary, the chapter considers the processes by which the bodies of the structurally de-valued carry the weight of their disadvantage. The chapter argues that the naturalisation of bodily difference within dominant accounts of ‘these kids’, results in the misrecognition of action as inaction. The chapter is located within contemporary debates thinking with and against Bourdieusian theorisations of education (Bourdieu and Passeron, 1990; Reay 2015; Thatcher et al, 2015). Building upon conceptualisations of social formations of the body (Bourdieu, 2004; Hall,1997; Skeggs, 2004) the chapter explores the social production of docile bodies (Foucault,1977) through the pedagogic practices of the primary school which construct The Estate as deficit.
Implications for legitimacy in terms of governance and local agency
Since the introduction of the academies policy and the growth of Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) in England, there has been a shift away from public to private agendas as part of an increasing neoliberal, market-driven education system. Various studies have looked at this in terms of the large-scale implications for the culture of school governance (e.g. Wilkins, 2015), local democratic accountability (e.g. Gunter, 2011) and the impact of a centrally controlled system (e.g. Ball, 2017), but there has been limited exploration about what this means for governors and local governing boards at the local level. This chapter makes an empirical contribution to the existing literature by showing how national policy is being translated within one MAT at different levels of management and governance. It shows how fears about the blurring of boundaries between public/private bodies and practices are transpiring in two main ways. The first main finding from the ethnographic study of one MAT shows how the increased professionalisation of governance appears to be leading to a preference for a trust board which is weighted towards business skills, at the expense of educational expertise. Second, but related to the first, is the marginalisation of local figures, with their insider knowledge, and the implications for localised democratic oversight. The chapter concludes by arguing that there is an urgent need for university teacher educators/researchers with ‘insider’ expertise to work with schools to challenge the growing narrative of business-led education.