Gove claims he is a champion of “social justice,” and that academies are about helping the neediest. Nothing could be further from the truth. By 2015 Gove will have overseen a 15 percent cut in school budgets in real terms. Programmes such as one to one tuition, behaviour improvement and ethnic minority support programmes are being sacrificed, while Gove now has more centralised power than any previous secretary of state.
Both academies and the free school programme are about the privatisation of state education. They are directly analogous to the government’s plans for the NHS.
State power is being used to open up the education and health “markets” to allow businesses to gain footholds and then expand through mergers and acquisitions. Although Gove is coy about allowing an immediate expansion of “for profit” schools, it is clear that this is his intention for the future. Already some schools are using for-profit providers, and Gove’s friends at the Confederation of British Industry and the Institute of Economic Affairs are champing at the bit.
This model of privatisation and deregulation is similar to the reforms made to the financial sector in the late 1980s and 1990s. Gove is so emboldened that he has begun talking about expanding selection and now openly equates academies with the grammar school system. He is also planning wholesale curriculum reforms with the intention of entrenching an elitist vision of education in which Latin, streaming “by ability” and other absurdities of the private school system are seen as good practice.
It is hard to predict what will happen. The rate of voluntary academy conversions has declined in recent months. Approaching half of all secondary schools are now academies. Interestingly, there have been some unintended consequences.
On 30 November most academies took strike action. Union membership and the density of reps in academies remains as high as in the maintained sector. Indeed there are signs that, because they are no longer part of local authority negotiating frameworks, union members can find that they have considerable leverage. In what might be seen as a return to “plant bargaining”, one NUT group persuaded their academy head to put the day’s pay for the strike into a hardship fund.
But the main problem for Gove is the primary sector. Only a handful of primaries have volunteered for academy conversion. Department of Education officials are travelling the length and breadth of the country putting pressure on heads and governors to convert or face forcible conversion.
This has come to a head in Haringey, north London. Initially some 17 schools were identified as potential targets. This has narrowed to five. Gove’s officials visited the schools before Christmas and told them they had to make a decision by the second week of January. It has provoked outrage across the community with a 150-strong parent meeting in one of the schools kicking off a vibrant campaign.
The direct intervention of the secretary of state in the governance of a school is an unprecedented step. Previously it was the local authority which stepped in. We know some schools struggle in challenging circumstances. The solution is a rigorous school improvement plan. Nowhere is there any evidence that turning a primary school into an academy will make it better. It also begs the question, who do schools belong to? Whatever the answer, it cannot be right that Mr Gove is the sole arbiter of a school’s future.
It is for this reason that Gove can expect to start feeling the heat in 2012. Already Haringey parents are planning to pay him a visit. If he is making the decisions then he will have to expect some direct action.
Gove is important to the coalition government. The perceived success of his academies programme, successful in part due to the woeful lack of opposition from the Labour front bench, means that Murdoch’s man is a hero in Tory circles.
The media seem willing to forget his misappropriation of over £7,000 in the MP’s expenses scandal and are equally soft on the fact that he found time, in his first year of office, to meet the Murdoch family 27 times, yet only managed ten visits to primary schools, and none at all to special schools, adult education or further education establishments.
Gove has been allowed space to develop an extremely right wing education policy despite the presence of Lib Dem Sarah Teather as an education minister. So much for coalition politics restraining the Tories!
It is now urgent that serious attention is paid to the task of challenging Gove. He is set on dismantling the ties that bind state education together as a cohesive and largely successful system. It is time to get Gove.
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