by Cadi Cliff
Wednesday was Budget Day and George Osborne set out plans for a huge shake-up of the schools system. He announced that schools in England must become academies, independent of local authorities, by 2020. It’s farewell to your old council-run comprehensive and hello to corporate sponsored academies — and no, you don’t get a say in the matter.
Along with junior doctor contracts, the majority of the public have not supported the government’s argument on academies — so the Tories have gone and imposed them anyway. Democracy, right?
You may be wondering what academies are, exactly. Well, the programme began under New Labour and was originally reserved for schools in urgent need of improvement, but was expanded considerably under the Coalition. They are state-funded schools — directly funded by the Department for Education and independent of local authority control. Whilst the day-to-day running of the school is with the head teacher, they are overseen by external sponsors and trusts which may be part of a chain. These trusts provide the academy’s strategic overview. They do not have to follow the national curriculum and have more powers over the hiring of staff. They control their own admissions process and have more control over their own budgets, the length of the school day, and term times.
That collective sigh we all gave when Gove got dethroned now feels like a distant memory
The Tory education plans were launched by former Education Secretary Michael Gove, who initially considered making all schools academies but gave existing schools the ability to convert to being an academy instead. Now, however, all schools will be forced to become academies whether teachers, parents, and pupils want them or not. That collective sigh we all gave when Gove got dethroned now feels like a distant memory.
Advocates of the change would argue that it gives schools more independence from local authorities to improve and teach what and how they want, freed from the boundaries of the national curriculum. The reality? Schools will be run from Whitehall rather than locally – with community democratic oversight and collaborative structures – and our education system will ultimately become privatised. Universities are already being run like companies, now schools will be as well. It is essentially profit before pupils. The move has been condemned by the National Union of Teachers and rejected by the Shadow Schools Minister Lucy Powell, with the Green Party national spokesperson for Education, Vix Lowthion, commenting that, “[a]t a time when we desperately need stability in our schools, the modernisation of our national curriculum and greater accountability to parents and communities, all of this is set to be ditched in the quest of giving away all our schools to private businesses to run.”
But they won’t let their corporate or religious values affect their role at all — honestly.
Detached from the democratic local authority control, far from a unifying national curriculum (which admittedly does needs reforming/modernising) and even further from the requirements that teachers be qualified and paid fairly, this system places curricula at the whim of sponsors. But they won’t let their corporate or religious values affect their role at all — honestly. Schools will become selective and money that could have been spent on educating will be spent instead on competing within the private sector, and making up for deficits in leadership. While funding this social engineering at the taxpayer’s expense, the Conservatives will dogmatically push a business model on education across the board— reducing reliability, spreading disunity, and increasing inequality. Fun.
In a letter to Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, Ofsted Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw noted that problems at these academy trusts often replicated those of the worst local councils, and that whilst huge salaries were being paid out to academy heads, students were being left with poor results. With the average pay of chief executives in trusts being higher than the prime minister’s — one as much as £400,000 — he stressed that “[t]his poor use of public money is compounded by some trusts holding very large cash reserves that are not being spent on raising standards. For example, at the end of August 2015, these seven trusts had total cash in the bank of £111m.”
a crude market approach in which parents and pupils can’t hold anyone to account
Whilst Osborne argues that this move is all for the sake of education and improvement, there is little to no proof that academy chains perform better than council-run schools, and in some cases there have been concerns over educational standards. Chairman of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, Councillor Roy Perry, said only 15% of the largest academy chains perform above the national average in terms of pupil progress, compared with 44% of council-run schools.
The link between schools and their local authorities and communities within a system of democratic accountability — a link that began in 1902 — is to be replaced by a crude market approach in which parents and pupils can’t hold anyone to account. Academies can, and have been known to in the case of Weston Academy Primary School on the Isle of Wight, close schools with minimal notice and reason and no consultation nor discussion with parents or the local community.
Since 2010, schools have been granted the ability to ‘opt in’ to transition to academy status. However, 40% of secondary schools and 80% of primary schools have made an active decision not to. That doesn’t seem to count for anything. Whilst education is a devolved matter in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland — each have their own systems — this signals the end of council-run schools for good in England; they’re all going to be academies, and not by choice.
This enforcement is nether fair nor democratic. The Conservatives fundamentally do not understand the concept of representation — you cannot consistently ignore the will of the masses and those within the sectors you’re affecting, and just frogmarch on with your own agenda. The Tories haven’t won the dispute on junior doctors — so they’ve imposed a contract. The Tories haven’t won the dispute on academies either — so they’re going to impose them too. They have taken a bulldozer to our national health system and our state education system, and they really don’t seem to give a shit about it. The local elections are coming up in May — make the most of them.
Featured image © Robert G Fresson