Michael Gove, the new secretary of state for education, has written to head teachers in schools judged by Ofsted to be “outstanding” asking if they would like to become academies. The government has removed legal requirements for schools to consult staff and parents about the decision to turn a school into an academy. This is now decided at just one meeting of a school’s governing body.
The academies programme plans to see more schools removed from local authority control and handed to academy sponsors who will have power over admissions, curriculum and staff pay and conditions.
Behind this is the neoliberal idea that the market is the best way to improve public services. Yet, far from improving education, this scheme is set to create a two-tier education system of “the best and the rest”. This is reminiscent of the old grammar school system, where working class children were failed by a system that saw them as little more than the next generation of “factory fodder”.
The new government has also invited parents and teachers to run their own “free” schools. These schools are reminiscent of the Victorian education system, with philanthropists, churches and charities running schools. They plan to relax planning regulations so that schools can be set up in disused offices, factories or homes. The taxpayer will fund these schools but, like academies, they will be outside local authority control. Gove claims this will lead to innovation and drive up standards. But what he won’t admit is that every new free school will create pressure on other schools to close.
Schools benefit from being run by local authorities. Despite league tables increasing the level of competition between schools, they currently cooperate in a number of different areas, often sharing services such as educational psychologists, and speech and language therapy. The local authority also ensures that pupil admissions are fair and open.
Removing local planning and accountability creates the conditions for more social segregation. Schools may no longer want to admit children who present them with more costs. Currently a local authority has the power to instruct a school to admit a child, but may only “request” admissions into academies. Children with special needs, with English as an additional language or from poorer backgrounds are likely to be the main losers.
There is plenty of evidence to support this argument. In 2003 the OECD argued that “the greater the diversity of types of school, the greater the social segregation”. In Sweden, despite Gove’s claim to the contrary, the introduction of “free” schools has led to greater social segregation and falling standards across the whole system.
As well as the educational arguments against academies, the scheme must also be put in the context of the wider attacks on the public sector. This sort of privatisation will help “soften up” teachers and school support staff for attacks on their wages and conditions.
Currently teachers’ pay and conditions are negotiated nationally and teachers are paid according to nationally agreed pay scales. Academies and “free schools” are free to set their own pay and conditions. This will have the effect of breaking national pay and conditions for teachers, undermining teaching unions and driving down wages.
The Con-Dem coalition is launching a dangerous experiment. They claim their aim is to raise standards for all and to tackle the underachievement of our poorest children. But academies and free schools don’t raise standards – good teaching does. The idea that Tories want to bring about social justice is a travesty.
Their education policies are set to throw our school system into turmoil. Before the election Gove’s adviser saw academies and free schools as “low hanging fruit”, an easy target on which to get quick, high profile stories showing them as reformers before the deadly axe of public sector cuts began to fall.
Outrageous as they are, we should realise that Gove’s plans could at best convert about 2,000 schools. That leaves about 22,000 still within the local authority maintained sector.
Gove’s Academies Bill is an enabling act for the dissolution of state education. But if parents, teachers, governors, head teachers and local authorities stick together we can sideline these plans. As one Islington head teacher said, “Academy status? Over my dead body.”
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