A national conference last Saturday brought together 250 opponents of New Labour's 2006 Education Act. Supported by the National Union of Teachers (NUT) with 12 other organisations, the conference saw vigorous discussion about why the act must be stopped.
The Education Act, if passed, will remove democratic control over schools, handing over many to private businesses or 'faith groups'. It is a kind of privatisation. Like the academies scheme, it will create 'trust' schools which are publicly funded but privately controlled.
Many will be run by business and 'faith' sponsors. Professor Stephen Ball called it a 'step change' in the relation between the state and the public and private sectors.
A market system turns children into commodities and schools into exam factories. Children won’t be the 'consumers' of education, to use government rhetoric, but its product (Bethan Marshall).
Despite education secretary Ruth Kelly’s promise of a new 'admissions code', it will be easier for primary and secondary schools to select pupils—to decide whose children to let in and whose to turn away. Racial and class prejudice will flourish, and children with disabilities and special needs will be excluded. Although Blair promised an end to interviews for secondary school entrance, speakers argued that underhand ways of selecting pupils would increase.
Many pupils will face a shift from a broad education with GCSEs into work training for low–paid jobs. The new law divides 14 year olds into academic and vocational tracks—a secondary modern inside every school.
This neo-liberal policy will prevent many young people from studying history or geography or literature or art, and replace English lessons with basic functional literacy. Where will they discuss what is happening in the world—wars, climate change, mass starvation?
Speaker after speaker ridiculed the government’s claim that it was helping the disadvantaged. 'Ruth Kelly talks more about the urban poor than Mother Theresa' (Melissa Benn), but this new law is about reproducing inequality.
Stephen Ball cast light on New Labour policies: they are based on the assumption of a meritocratic society, unequal but supposedly fair, and the claim that people prosper according to their 'ability'.
The notion of unequal 'abilities' is everywhere in the Bill. Abilities are seen as fixed, and it is the role of schools to identify them and to reproduce inequalities. It divides children into three types—the 'gifted and talented', those who are 'struggling' and the majority who are just 'average'. They even sit on different tables from the age of five.
NUT general secretary Steve Sinnott said schools should have a primary duty to promote social inclusion and community cohesion, and insisted that school governors should be elected, not appointed by business or faith sponsors.
The government labels its opponents 'Neanderthals and residual ideologues' (Prof. Ron Glatter) but the reverse is true:
The new law is based on Labour’s ideological commitment to privatisation, private philanthropy and faith-based schools. Independent but publicly-funded schools are presented as a 'magic bullet', but there is no evidence that 'trust schools' will serve the poorest.
Bethan Marshall (King’s College London) argued that success and failure are essential to the idea of a market. A market place in parental choice is illusory where there are finite resources. In London, two-thirds fail to get first choice, and enter secondary school convinced that they are not in the 'best school'. Parents want a good local school for their children.
Hamish MacCallum, representing secondary school students, said the government were denying Article 12 of the Rights of the Child by failing to consult young people. If they’d start to ask students why they misbehave, they’d have a lot more useful answers.
Tricia Jaffe, head of Kidbrooke, England’s first purpose-built comprehensive school: It will have a worse impact than Thatcher’s legislation. It hands over a school’s assets to non-elected people (business and faith groups), giving them power over admissions, teachers’ pay and conditions, and the curriculum.
Schools in disadvantaged areas will be squeezed and labelled as not good enough. The most disadvantaged students, and those whose parents don’t know how to work the system, will struggle to find school places.
Mike Davies, head of an Essex comprehensive, pointed to a fundamental contradiction in New Labour policies between those which reproduce inequality (league tables, inspection etc) and those which speak of equality (Sure Start, extended schools, Every Child Matters). But arguing against MPs who voted for it to rescue some good points, he insisted that the new law isn’t a combination or a 'Third Way'.
'It contributes nothing to social justice, or a broader definition of achievement, or really helping young people realise their talents. It will perpetuate the situation where many secondary school students feel disaffected and disengaged, and quit education as soon as possible.'
Melissa Benn warned against Ruth Kelly’s devious talk of 'comprehensive systems' or a 'comprehensive approach' or 'comprehensive confederations of schools', which really mean segregation into different schools. Schools need to be publicly accountable as well as publicly funded. Instead, public money was being used to serve private ends.
Bob Garnett representing the confederation of education officers:
Children’s lives cannot be subject to market forces. Human knowledge is not a commodity in a market place, or a prize to be gained by the fittest.
The strong will flourish. When democratically elected local councils and governors lose their power, no one will be left to speak for the voiceless.
All these speakers were applauded enthusiastically, but David Chaytor MP met an angry reaction. Previously a Labour rebel, he had ended up voting for the Bill. Headteachers and professors and the rest heckled him and demanded explanations. His speech revealed that Blair and Kelly had bought them off with extremely vague assurances.
By contrast, the new Liberal spokesperson Sarah Teather MP was warmly received when she argued for a broad curriculum for 14–18 years including both academic and vocational elements. The new law would divide students from age 14 rigidly between academic and vocational programmes. It would create a two-tier system.