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Academy programme: attacking the poor in name of justice

Poverty lies behind low educational achievement, but the government’s academy programme exacerbates the problem, writes Terry Wrigley

Issue No. 2117

At the end of the last school year, schools secretary Ed Balls threatened nearly one in five secondary schools in Britain – 638 in total – with closure.

Balls has earmarked schools where less than 30 percent of pupils gained five or more GCSEs at grades A*-C, including English and maths.

Because this is much harder in areas of poverty and deprivation, he mainly hit schools in inner cities and council estates. In fact two thirds of schools where over 30 percent of pupils are entitled to free school meals are under threat.

But it is not the individual schools that have failed – it is government policies.

Balls intends to turn these schools into academies, even though the whole academies experiment, where control of state-funded schools is handed to private businesses or charities, has been a disaster.

Improved exam results are entirely the result of using easier qualifications – GNVQ instead of GCSE – and changing the school population – recruiting better-off pupils and pushing poorer ones into nearby schools.

Academies exclude up to two thirds more children than state-run schools.

Despite this, 26 academies are included in the list of 638 “failing schools”.

Unfortunately we have a government that just doesn’t learn. It is now talking of converting primary schools into academies.

The government digs itself in deeper every time because it is devoted to the privatisation of public services.

It is this agenda that lies behind the attack on “failing schools”. Many of these schools have had very good inspection reports.

Most had improving GCSE results and Ofsted classified several as “outstanding”.

But the academies programme can’t be sold to the general public on the grounds that it gives more power and control to the rich.

So instead, the government regularly claims that its policies of privatisation and business involvement in welfare services are ways of promoting social justice.

No socialist can be complacent about children getting low qualifications because of family poverty. But we cannot swallow government lies about privatisation.


The root cause of low school achievement is poverty, including the demoralisation and insecurity that comes from working in a McJobs economy.

Schools can make some difference but it is difficult under the constant pressure of exam league tables, Ofsted inspections and government ministers announcing that you have failed.

Schools in poor areas need a big boost in funding, and the freedom to develop a different curriculum and more interesting ways of learning.

Though there are now signs of a relaxation of the centralised national curriculum, only schools in better off areas are likely to benefit.

Schools in the poorest areas are kept constantly under government threat.

It is beyond dispute that growing up in poverty reduces your chances of a successful education. But poverty doesn’t affect all children the same way.

For example, some single mothers with a good education, who live in poverty because of problems juggling work and childcare, are able to give their children lots of help.

Some teachers are very good at inspiring and supporting children to succeed. So some children do succeed against the odds, but the general trend is undeniable.

This is an enormous problem in Britain because there is so much child poverty.

It increased massively under Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government – from 14 to 33 percent. Under New Labour child poverty has started to rise again.

It is a scandal that, in one of the richest economies in the world, nearly three million children – one in four – are growing up in poverty.

Gordon Brown has himself to blame. As chancellor he set modest targets for improvement, 20 years to abolish child poverty, but soon let things slide.

The minimum wage is too low to keep a family and the tax credit system is often impossible to understand.

International studies of school achievement link low achievement in British schools to the extent of child poverty.

There is more poverty here, but poverty also has a bigger impact than other countries.

There are many reasons for this – the emphasis on testing makes young children feel they have failed, and a rigid national curriculum makes it difficult for teachers to relate to children’s interests and local environment. It is hard to make learning exciting.

Competition between schools has been encouraged which leaves some schools with a high concentration of deprived children.

These policies were introduced by Thatcher but have been continued by New Labour.

Countries with high levels of educational achievement such as Finland have lower levels of child poverty, but they also have education policies that mean poverty makes less of a difference.

All children there receive healthy, free school meals.

Excellent libraries and childcare make children enthusiastic readers.

Secondary schools in Finland are small, with an average of 300 students, avoiding large anonymous schools where vulnerable children slip through the net.

Classes are small too, and there is excellent help for those who are struggling.

New Labour’s education policies have failed, but Gordon Brown, like Thatcher and Tony Blair before him, prefers to blame individual schools.


But if the government is now threatening hundreds more schools with closure and privatisation, this will only increase resistance to their policies.

Instead of isolated struggles in each area, there will be a broad and vigorous political struggle across England.

Already the NUT and all the other teacher unions, Unison and many other trade unions are affiliated to the Anti-Academies Alliance.

Now is the time to challenge a desperately weak government and its damaging neoliberal policies.

Terry Wrigley is a lecturer in educational development at Edinburgh university. He is the author of Another School is Possible. It is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 »

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Tue 2 Sep 2008, 18:37 BST
Issue No. 2117
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