"Little robots": behind the scenes at an academy school

New research lifts the lid on an influential academy school and finds an authoritarian system that reproduces race and class inequalities.    

We cannot continue to ignore the links between the testing regimes we put pupils through, the harsh school cultures they create, and the deteriorating physical and mental health of children
Christy Kulz

’Structure liberates’: the ethos behind one of England’s flagship academy schools. Designed as an engine of social mobility, this school drills ’urban children’ for the grades and behaviour considered a passport to the world of middle-class salaries and sensibilities.

The headline-grabbing exam results of this school have led politicians to champion its approach as a silver bullet for entrenched poverty, and ’structure liberates’ has become the blueprint for recent urban education reform.

The school’s recipe has now been replicated many times through academy trusts that have spread like "modern-day missionaries" across the nation, says Dr Christy Kulz , a Leverhulme Research Fellow at Cambridge’s Faculty of Education. Shortly after it opened, Kulz was granted permission to conduct fieldwork in the school, where she had once worked as a teaching assistant. Choosing to anonymise her research, she calls the school Dreamfields.

Her new book goes behind the scenes of life at Dreamfields, and is the only detailed ethnographic account of the everyday practices within this new breed of academy school. "Education has long been promoted as a salve that cures urban deprivation and balances capitalism’s inequalities," says Kulz, who spent 18 months of observation in Dreamfields, interviewing parents, teachers and students

"The academy programme taps into ’mythical qualities’ of social mobility: some kind of magic formula that provides equal opportunities for every individual once they are within the school, regardless of race, class or social context." In 2012, then Prime Minister David Cameron described academies as "working miracles".

Primarily state funded but run as not-for-profit businesses, sometimes with support from individual philanthropists, academies such as Dreamfields are independent of local authority control and sit outside the democratic process of local government.    

’Verbal cane’

The gospel according to Dreamfields’ celebrated head is described as a "traditional approach". Kulz says she found a stress-ridden hierarchical culture focused on a conveyer belt of testing under strict - almost military - conditions, and suffused with police-style language of ’investigations’ and ’repeat offenders’.

Enforcement comes through what Kulz calls the "verbal cane". Tongue-lashings administered by teachers regularly echoed around the corridors, and were encouraged by senior staff. One teacher told Kulz that seeing tall male members of staff screaming in the faces of 11-year-olds was "very hard to digest".

This verbal aggression is heightened by the panoptic surveillance built into the very architecture of the school. All activity is conducted within the bounds of a U-shaped building with a complete glass frontage. Everyone is on show at all times, including staff, who felt constantly monitored and pressured into visibly exerting the discipline favoured by management. Policing was not confined to within the school gates. Kulz goes on a ride-along with what’s known as "chicken-shop patrol". Driving around the streets after school, staff members jump out of the car to intervene when children are deemed to be congregating or in scruffy uniforms.

Stopping off at one of the local takeaways is considered a major offence. "Fried chicken represents a ’poor choice’ that Dreamfields must prohibit in order to change urban culture," says Kulz. "Simply being caught in a takeaway after school is punished with a two-hour detention the following day."

Students are also policed through exacting uniform adherence, with a ’broken-window theory’ approach that sees deviation as opening the door to chaos.

The smallest rule infraction can be met with a spell in isolated detention. Staff would sometimes go to strange lengths to maintain conformity, she says. Suede shoes were subject to clampdown. Parental suggestions of a karaoke stall at a winter fair were considered far too risky. "There is no room for unpredictability at Dreamfields," says Kulz. One student who shaved lines into his eyebrows had to have them coloured in by a teacher every morning.

’Cultural cloning’

As fieldwork progressed, Kulz began to notice discrepancies that tallied uncomfortably with race and social background. Black children with fringes, or children who congregated outside takeaways, were reprimanded immediately. White middle-class children with long floppy hair, or gathering en masse by Tesco, were ignored. Teachers troubled by this would hint at it in hushed tones.

"The approach of many academy schools is one of cultural cloning," says Kulz. "The Dreamfields creed is that ’urban children’, a phrase used by staff to mean working-class and ethnic minority kids assumed to have unhappy backgrounds, need salvaging - with middle-class students positioned as the unnamed, normative and universal ideal."

"Black students were consistently more heavily policed in the playground, resulting in many consciously adopting ’whiter’ styles and behaviours - a tactic that reduced their surveillance." It is not just children who are driven hard through incessant monitoring. Staff at Dreamfields are subject to ’teacher tracking’, a rolling system in which student grades are converted into scores, allowing management to rank the teachers - an approach staff compared with salesmen being judged on their weekly turnover.

This pressurised auditing resulted in rote learning to avoid a red flag in the system. "You put a grade in that satisfies the system instead of it satisfying the student’s knowledge and needs," one teacher lamented to Kulz, explaining his ’real job’ was not to teach understanding of his subject, but to get students to produce a set product quickly and accurately. One student described himself to Kulz as a "little robot".

Most teachers exceeded a 48-hour week. The majority of staff were young - an average age of 33 - with fewer outside commitments, yet many expressed a sense of exhaustion. "If you’re not in a lesson we are expected to patrol," one teacher told Kulz. "Every moment of every day is taken up with some sort of duty." Unlike most schools, Dreamfields has no staff room.

Some staff discussed former colleagues who had suffered burnout or were asked to resign. During interviews, Kulz found conspiracy theories were rife among students because of the number of teachers that "just disappeared".

Yet Dreamfields was - and still is - fêted by politicians and the media for its undeniably extraordinary exam results: over 80% pass rate at GCSE in an area where this was previously unthinkable. At the time, the school was vastly oversubscribed, with over 1,500 applications for just 200 places.

"Most of the students, parents and teachers were keen to comply to Dreamfields’ regime, despite its injustices. The school’s approach was seen as the best shot at securing grades and succeeding in an increasingly precarious economy," says Kulz. "Students, like staff, are trained to be expendable while the ideals of democracy and critical thinking we are allegedly meant to cherish are quashed in the process."

This model of a disciplinarian school built for surveillance and which teaches market-force obedience has marched ever onward since her time in Dreamfields, says Kulz - arriving at new poverty front-lines such as rundown seaside towns. Yet, grassroots resistance to this style of education is increasing. Last year, a recently established academy in Great Yarmouth that forbade "slouching and talking in corridors" had pupils pulled out by parents objecting to the "draconian" rules that were central to the much-imitated Dreamfields playbook.

Kulz believes the grades achieved by these schools - far from universally high - come at a price. "We cannot continue to ignore the links between the testing regimes we put pupils through, the harsh school cultures they create, and the deteriorating physical and mental health of children and young people in the UK."

’Factories for Learning: Making Race, Class and Inequality in the Neoliberal Academy’ (2017) is published by Manchester University Press.