The government’s first Queen’s speech was a mixture of cuts (but just the first round), policy built on New Labour’s “legacy” and various concessions to the Lib-Dems — most of which had already formed the basis of the pre-nuptial agreement between the two coalition partners.
But the headline policy on schools reform, while being a logical step on from New Labour rule, was a giant step… towards a completely free market in state-funded education. And any imprint of historical opposition from the Lib Dems to such things as Academies was nowhere in evidence.
What do the government propose?
• Offering primary and secondary schools in England and Wales judged to be “outstanding” by Ofsted instant Academy status without any conditions. (That is 500 secondary schools and 1700 primary schools.)
• Allowing parents and other groups to set up Academies without any need to consult a local authority — a so-called “free school”. All they have to do is turn up to the Department for Education with a Business Plan.
• Allowing every other state-funded school in the country to become an Academy, as long as they too have a Business Plan.
• Keeping League Tables in an unspecified modified form (although they will probably scrap SATs).
• Introducing a Pupil Premium, extra money, separate to the overall school budget, for schools in deprived areas. This was the policy of all the parties before the election. The money, £2.5 billion, may sound like a lot, but spread across thousands of schools, it will not go far.
No school will be obliged to become an academy, but schools will gain extra money from opting out of local authority control and that is an incentive some head teachers will jump at.
What will happen to the schools that are not now being fast-tracked to academy status? Will their business plans be good enough to get them academy status? Possibly.
Michael Gove says he wants all schools to be academies. But he envisages Academies being grouped in “chains” (a New Labour idea) — with lower achieving Academies being “helped out” by the higher achievers. In other words a two tier education system, grouped together by the businesses and charities that run the Academy chains.
What will happen to those schools that positively want to remain in local authority control? They will suffer from local authorities losing cash. If the government can’t “incentivise” schools into becoming Academies, it will starve them into submission.
According to the Tories’ free market dogma, bad Academies will be “encouraged” to improve by the shining example of the “very best”. Really?
The school report on New Labour’s Academy programme, presented originally as a programme to drive up standards in “failing” schools is not that great. The ten years since New Labour introduced Academies have yielded no scientific evidence to show that they automatically drive up standards. Yet, an aura now surrounds these schools. Our rulers assumed that they do drive up standards. Such is the power of the myths that surround capitalist market principles.
The same set of assumptions underlyiesthe so-called “free schools” policy. This is just another means to create more pseudo-options in a “free market” in state-funded education.
While local councils are by no means models of democratic functioning, the principle of having locally elected representatives who oversee education for the needs of a whole community, and who are accountable to it is extremely important. We need to sharpen up our arguments in defence of that principle.
• Under a hotch-potch system of schools competing against each other the needs of, for instance, children with special educational needs, cannot be planned for.
• The idea of allowing parents to set up schools wherever they want only superficially gives “power to the people”.
The school-starters will always be a self-selected group (rather than a democratically representative body). They cannot possibly represent the needs of the whole community, and they are certainly not accountable to it.
The real point of these reforms is that through “parental enterprise” and the spreading of Academy status, a whole raft of services will be handed over to private companies. Headteachers and governors will spend their time meeting with reps from businesses with competing expertise.
If they are confused by it all they always can consult The New Schools Network, a consultancy set up by a former aide to Michael Gove, which will help put them in touch with the right businesses for them.
This is big business. And while free schools aren’t allowed make a profit from their daily operations, by charging fees, for ancillary activities they can still cream off a big profit.
Take Kunskapsskolan a company which runs 30 free schools in Sweden. Last year the firm had an operating profit of SKr65 million. They have recently taken over their first Academy in Richmond.
There are many reasons for teachers to oppose these changes — it could smash up national collective agreements on pay and conditions (academies can determine their own pay structure). But this is not just an issue for teachers and not just about industrial concerns.
We need the broadest possible campaign to save and extend state-funded comprehensive education. We need to base our campaign on socialist principles.
It is not just that we oppose these reforms from an anti-capitalist point of view — because they are about the marketisation and privatisation of education. We also have a bigger vision — we believe that every child has the right to a decent education.
While every parent wants to do their best for their child, a competitive scramble by every parent to push their children forward is not a principle upon which we should organise society. Socialists live by the principle “from each according to her or his ability, to each according to her of his need”. It serves us very well here.
This programme of individual schools competing for scarce resources has to be completely reversed. We need to get more resources, to take all competition out of the system and to design schools and education more broadly around the needs of all children and the communities in which they live.