Wednesday 1 December 2010

The Twisted Logic of Gove's White Paper

The Government’s Education White Paper, ‘The Importance of Teaching’ is a poisonous amalgam of twisted logic and dangerous threats to teachers and the future of education.

Clegg and Cameron’s foreword sets the tone with its deceiving distortions. They quite rightly say that we have to learn from other countries like Finland – but their educational and economic policies are in total contradiction to the relative social equality that Finland’s success has been based upon.

The Con-Dem’s want more Academies and Free Schools. But more children succeed in Finland precisely because they have resisted privatisation and maintained a broadly comprehensive system.

Finland doesn’t have a witch-hunting Ofsted-style inspection regime nor does it publish the divisive school league tables that stigmatise schools in the most disadvantaged communities. But the Con-Dems want to force schools into becoming Academies if they don’t reach their heightened ‘floor targets’ of 35% A*-C GCSE’s (including English and Maths) or 60 % achieving Level 4 in Year 6.

The White Paper claims that it is reducing ‘prescription’ but, while promising a review of testing, states clearly in advance that the Con-Dems will maintain the national testing that forces fearful schools to adopt ‘teaching-to-the-test’. Far from granting freedom to primary teachers, the White Paper insists that ‘synthetic phonics’ is the best way to teach reading, when, in reality, it is just one of a range of techniques that children can benefit from.

Instead of abolishing league tables, the white paper proposes extending them, moving closer to the divisive strategy of producing not just school-by-school but teacher-by-teacher comparisons. This Government of millionaires wants to scapegoat teachers when their own failings to tackle poverty, poor housing and unemployment are really to blame.

Gove will abolish the ‘value-added’ league tables which, for all their faults, went some way to recognising that, however well a school tries to meet pupil needs, home background remains the main influence on exam outcomes. Gove simply declares that ‘we do not expect pupils eligible for free school meals to make less progress’. But his Government’s vicious attacks on jobs, services and benefits will only accentuate those very real factors that discriminate against working-class children.

43% of Finnish 20-29 year-olds have had a university education. But the Con-Dems’ plans to abolish EMA and charge £9,000 tuition fees will steal that opportunity away from so many young people.

In Finland, class sizes are below average, teachers have shorter teaching hours – meaning more time to prepare lessons. But in Britain, class sizes will rise and workload worsen as budgets are cut. The ‘Pupil Premium’ will not add new money to budgets. On the contrary, it has been estimated that 60% of primary students and 87% of secondary students will see their school’s real funding fall when allocations are finally calculated. The White Paper also proposes cuts to school sixth form funding.

Included in the White Paper’s various claims about reducing ‘bureaucracy’ are comments about loosening lesson planning requirements – along with other proposals such as speeding up the time it takes to investigate allegations against teachers -  that could sound attractive to staff. However, the regulations that Gove will be keenest to remove will be those protecting our pay and conditions.

Gove’s abolition of the School Support Staff Negotiating Body and his letter to the School Teachers Review Body calling on them “to reduce the rigidity of the existing pay and conditions framework” shows that he expects schools to balance their budgets at the expense of staff.  Those limited workload protections that survive in national legislation such as the right to time out of class for ‘PPA’ (planning, preparation and assessment), could soon be under attack.  Gove will be looking to give schools even greater powers to set teacher against teacher through performance-related pay.  Staff will be told to knuckle down and do as management tells them – or face a continual pay freeze.

What’s certain is that the White Paper will mark a further sharpening of the bullying management regime that has already taken grip of so many of our schools. For example, it proposes removing the existing annual limit of three hours of management observations of a teacher’s lessons as well as ‘shortening’ capability procedures to make it easier for teachers to be bullied out of their jobs.

The White Paper pretends to acknowledge how important it is to have high quality teaching. But it proposes handing over much of teacher training from universities to over-worked schools. Many new teachers will just be thrown in schools to ‘sink or swim’ without any chance for a broader study of pedagogy. The idea that a ‘Troops to Teachers’ programme can restore ‘authority in the classroom’ is Tory nonsense. ‘Hands up children’ could certainly take on a new meaning!

Some of the proposals may indeed be laughable, but the White Paper is a very serious attack on what remains of democratically accountable comprehensive Local Authority education.

Shamefully, New Labour promoted the marketisation of public services, following the mantra that ‘competition works’. In reality, the market creates both winners and losers, as each school looks after its own interest rather than the needs of every child in the community. Resources are stolen from local communities and handed over to education businesses. The Con-Dems are taking Labour’s Academy programme to its logical conclusion. The White Paper even quotes approvingly from Blair’s autobiography about how Academies are ‘freed from the ... interference from state’.

Having already encouraged ‘outstanding’ schools to jump ship from Local Authorities, Gove now wants to force supposedly ‘failing’ or even ‘satisfactory’ schools into Academies. His model of ‘collaboration through Academy chains and multi-school trusts’ is a clear plan to replace public Local Authorities with private conglomerates. The White Paper makes clear that the Con-Dems have already lined up their big business friends as sponsors “who are keen to extend their reach”.

Gove wants to go beyond Academies with his privatised Free Schools - based on the anti-union US Charter Schools being peddled in the film “Waiting for Superman”. Free Schools will be allowed to expand at the expense of community schools. The White Paper makes clear that “where there is a need for a new school, the first choice will be an Academy or Free School’. This is a major threat in areas like London where a rising school population will require an urgent expansion of school places.

Of course, another ‘bureaucracy’ that privatised schools will really want to have removed is any restriction on their ability to select the pupils they teach. Gove’s promise to consult on a “simplified and less prescriptive Admissions Code” could be a further step towards open selection.

Teaching and education is indeed of vital importance to our communities and our youth. But this White Paper is a blueprint for dismantling comprehensive education – along with the pay and conditions of school staff. Alongside defending pensions, school staff need to be ready to respond to any attack on our national pay and conditions with strike action. Together with our communities we must organise to defeat the Con-Dem’s drive to privatise and dismantle Local Authority schooling

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