Monday 31 May 2010

State Education Under Threat

Anti Academies Alliance Public Meeting: 
Thursday 24th June, 6.30pm at
Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, London, SW1H.

The new Government has put the whole future of comprehensive state education under threat.

Education Secretary Michael Gove is rushing an Academies Bill through Parliament at such a rapid speed that hundreds more schools could become privatised Academies by September. But that could just be the start of a complete break-up of democratically-controlled Local Authority schooling.

Putting “rocket boosters” under the Academies Programme

New Labour introduced Academies as state-funded schools that are run outside Local Authority control. About 200 have been set up, handed over to a series of different religious and business sponsors who wanted to exert influence on education – and expand their commercial empires too.

Their supporters argued that creating a ‘market’ of competing schools would ‘raise standards’. There is no real evidence that Academies have improved education but clear signs that they have started to undermine comprehensive provision through being given control over their admissions and exclusions policies.

Gove wants to put “rocket boosters” under the Academies programme and drive through Labour’s original marketisation plans so that many more schools are rapidly taken out of local control. In addition, parents’ groups and education businesses will be encouraged to set up similar ‘free schools’ to compete with existing provision.

As a ‘Whitehall source’ told the Guardian soon after the coalition was formed, these plans are “about getting local authorities out of the picture”. They are intended to turn the creeping part-privatisation of education under Labour into a full-blown dismantling of a planned state education system. Education will be stolen from local control and handed to education profiteers to run as chains of privatised schools.

Working-class students will lose out

Despite all the attempts over the years to privatise and divide through Local Management of Schools, Academies and Trusts and so on, most areas still retain a locally co-ordinated system of community schools, accountable to an elected Council that can plan admissions and provide central support to try and meet the needs of all pupils.

Gove’s plans would create a chaotic system of competing schools. Of course that market would create ‘winners and losers’ – and it would be predominantly working-class and black pupils that are likely to lose out. It would become a privatised, selective system against a background of spending cuts. Academies would seek to select the students that can produce the highest results for the cheapest input – leaving cash-starved Local Authorities to support those with the greatest needs.

Gove’s decision to immediately invite all schools deemed ‘outstanding’ by OfSTED to take a fast-track to Academy status shows what the Government has in mind. They want to create a ‘two-tier’ system where Local Authorities are left with the ‘secondary moderns’ to teach the youth with little prospect beyond low pay and unemployment.

In case encouragement were needed, Gove has said that Academies’ budgets will be boosted by 10% or so compared to community schools. This will be money previously paid to local authorities to provide shared services. Of course, this is no real gain for an Academy if those services are still to be provided – although it might boost the profits of a privatised provider. It is certainly a loss to a Local Authority who will see their budgets – and the support they can provide to remaining schools - dwindling.

An attack on trade unions

These privatisation plans are designed to permanently remove the threat of the national trade union action that could seriously challenge a government intent on driving through massive cuts. By dividing schools into a series of different Academy employers, all able to set their own contracts, national pay and conditions arrangements will be torn apart.

Gove’s letter to ‘outstanding’ schools spells out that they stand to win the “ability to set your own pay and conditions for staff” and the “ability to change the length of terms and school days”. Gove hopes that an atomised teaching profession can be bullied into working even longer hours and cowed by even more discretionary performance pay arrangements.

A rapid attack needs a rapid response

Teacher unions have been shocked by the speed of Gove’s attack. There are 600 ‘outstanding’ secondary schools and 2,000 ‘outstanding’ primary schools. Even if only a proportion of these took up Gove’s invitation to become Academies by September, this would mark a huge increase by the start of the next academic year – with many more to follow.

The new legislation would even outlaw the sham ‘consultations’ set up by New Labour that at least allowed local campaigns some limited time to oppose Academy plans. The Academies Bill proposes that school governors can just take a simple vote without any consultation with parents, staff or the community. The Department for Education website sets down a timetable that would allow schools to move from ‘registering an interest’ to becoming an Academy in just three months!

Teaching unions have to move quickly to make clear that we aren't going to accept these attacks. It is welcome that the General Secretaries of the teaching unions NUT, NASUWT and ATL, together with UNISON, have written jointly to schools opposing Gove’s plans. Unions will also be contacting ‘outstanding’ schools urgently to encourage staff and governors to reject Gove’s invitation. But wider action drawing on the combined strength of all these unions is also vital.

The Anti Academies Alliance has called an emergency public rally on Thursday 24th June, 6.30pm at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, London, SW1H. Similar initiatives should be organised in other towns and cities building for a national demonstration this term to defend state education and as a preparation for national strike action.

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