Teachers reading the Guardian’s headline this morning, “Labour vows to rub out Michael Gove’s education reforms” must have hoped that a minor miracle had happened.
It was only a few weeks ago that Tristram Hunt had declared that "I don't think you want to waste political energy on undoing reforms, that in certain situations build actually rather successfully on Labour party policy". Could it be that David Blunkett’s Labour Party Policy Review had recommended significant changes instead?
Extending marketisation even further
Unfortunately, the Guardian headline is wishful thinking – or New Labour spin. A quick read of the full “Putting students and parents first” report soon confirms that Blunkett’s ‘rubber’ has only made some very minor corrections. Worse, the Blunkett Review not only maintains the direction of travel of successive governments but, in key areas, extends the process of marketisation of schooling even further.
This is, after all, hardly a surprise. David Blunkett was one of the architects of New Labour’s education policies, angering teachers with his talk of “relentless pressure” on teachers. At the 2001 NUT Conference, the then NUT President, John Illingworth, rebuked him from the platform for policies that were leading to teacher shortages.
Yet more 'relentless pressure' on teachers
Thirteen years on,
the pressure has got even more relentless and the demoralisation and turnover
of teachers remains a key issue facing education. However, it seems that
Blunkett hasn’t listened. His 2014 review now uses the phrase ‘relentless drive
to raise standards’. Now every teacher works hard, sometimes too hard, to do
the best for the children they teach. However, if ‘relentless pressure’ simply
means more bullying and even longer hours, instead of genuine support and
resources, then teachers will continue to be driven from the profession and children’s
education will continue to suffer.
A worrying sentence
in the report suggests that even longer hours might, indeed, be what could really
be on offer: “freedom for all schools to adapt the school day and the school week”.
While Gove backed away from his proposals to alter directed time, the Blunkett
review implies that New Labour might be prepared to go where Gove feared to tread.
'Value for money' = Spending Cuts
Similarly, when it
comes to funding, there is nothing to suggest that Labour will be funding
schools sufficiently to recruit more teachers so as to reduce workload, nor to allow
the improved access to professional development that the Review supports. The
sections on the funding formula and Pupil Premium are inconclusive. What stood
out to me were the several references to ‘value for money’ – always a euphemism
for spending cuts.
Of course, that doesn’t
mean that there aren’t proposals in the Review that correct some of the more nonsensical
parts of Gove’s regime – like the wasteful spending on free schools in areas
where there are surplus school places. However, his plans to stop Academy chains
misusing funds on Executive salaries seems to forget what drives some ‘entrepreneurs’
to get involved in the education market in the first place!
are a few welcome phrases which can be pulled out from the review, for example
around local approaches to the curriculum (although there’s no mention of
input from teachers and their unions and the reference to a curriculum that
reinforces a ‘sense of national identity’ is more debatable). However, even the
supposedly “clear recommendation that schools should be employing qualified
teachers”, mentioned in today’s NUT press release, is far from clearly worded.
'Qualified teachers' promise may not be what it seems
What the Review actually states is that there is a “need to ensure that
properly qualified teachers ‘oversee’ the learning process”. It’s not hard to
see that ‘oversight’ is a very different commitment to the one that parents and
teachers would be seeking*.
Blunkett tries to argue that his proposals are about ‘collaboration’ not ‘competition’ by saying that schools will have to work in partnerships. For example, primary schools will be brought together in arms-length ‘Community Trusts’.
However, what Blunkett really seems to be suggesting is that there should be a managed break-up of what’s left of Local Authority schooling. “Reformed and modernised” Local Authorities will be reduced to a scrutiny role, providing data for others to use. Real power would lie with regional “Directors of School Standards” to oversee school provision and to ‘invite proposals’ for opening new schools where they judged additional provision was needed.
The end of elected Local Authority control of education
Blunkett wants to suggest that his model will enhance parental involvement. In reality, the last vestiges of democratic local authority control over education will be lost. The ‘DoSSers' will be appointed, not elected. Parents will find they have no real input.
The Review makes crystal clear that “Academies are here to stay and we need to build on this landscape”. Blunkett tries to argue that the type of school is irrelevant; it’s just the quality of teaching that goes on within them that matters. Firstly, and a feature of the Global Education Reform Movement internationally, such an argument of course tries to ignore the effect of class and poverty, a social divide being made worse by government policies. Secondly, he fails to acknowledge that the marketisation that he promotes will undermine education, not improve it.
Academy chains will become the dominant provider of schools. Yes, schools might have the power to move from one chain to another but this just reinforces the false idea that, somehow, a ‘free market’ between competing academy chains will benefit education. No, privatisation consistently fails public services.
Replaced by unaccountable localised Academy Chains
With no obvious irony, the Blunkett review states that “it is our belief that best practice lies within smaller configurations, geographically-based and properly focused”. But the Review certainly isn’t recommending Local Authorities! Instead, it seems that their place is to be taken by unaccountable locally-based academy chains.
The Blunkett review is trying to do the impossible – to provide a manageable coherent marketplace for education. But markets aren’t coherent and stable. They certainly won’t be accountable to parents and students. Parents and teachers together have to continue to demand properly-funded, locally accountable, community schools, as the only way to guarantee a good local school for every child.
* A sentence on page 32 of the Report says the following: "Supervision of
others with expertise to offer is part of the professional role of the
qualified teacher. So instructors, visiting academics, peripatetic
teachers, or those with business experience would be welcome".