There has been widespread opposition to the government’s reform of how the NHS is governed, and an understanding that the new structures would accelerate privatisation. Most people reject the idea of healthcare being run as a business. Despite active local campaigns and union opposition, why has popular opposition to the privatisation of schools as academies been more muted?
One possible reason was that New Labour started its academy programme with mainly low-achieving secondary schools, providing expensive new buildings in areas blighted by poverty as the symbol of a fresh start. The claim to be helping disadvantaged young people served as the bridgehead for a wholesale shift of secondary schools to privatised management.
Parents are also more disconnected from secondary schools. They might be more resistant to allowing their children’s primary school to be taken over by one of the new education businesses.
A major factor, though, has been uncertainty about how schools benefit from local education authorities, making it easy for government to bribe schools with more money in lieu of local authority budgets.
The role of local government has been seriously eroded in the past 20 years. To a large extent, instead of playing a role in helping schools develop, they have been reduced to quality control for national government. Because of legal changes by the last Labour government, locally elected councillors have hardly any say in education. Academy opponents have found themselves defending the shadow of what local authorities used to be. It is time to consider what role they should have in the running of schools.
Within a class-divided society, local government is never genuinely democratic. The rich have disproportionate influence, and there are few opportunities for public debate. Even so, the fact that councillors are up for election every few years means that local government can form a barrier between the national state and local services. Local authorities are generally more responsive to local feelings than the edu-businesses that are now taking over schools.
Going back 20 years, local education authorities had their own advisers who supported schools facing difficulties and worked with teachers to bring about change. Even though they were called “inspectors” in some authorities, they generally saw their role as advisory and supportive.
Local authorities played a key role in assisting pupils with special needs, enabling many more to be taught within mainstream schools. Even small authorities could pull together a body of experts, including psychologists, dyslexia and hearing impaired specialists, and heads of special schools, to work with classroom teachers. The authority I used to work for employed about 30 teachers to help pupils of Pakistani and Bangladeshi heritage in improving their English, while at the same time sustaining their family languages. This team came together every Wednesday afternoon from the schools where they worked to share ideas and produce resources.
Many education authorities developed a strong mission of promoting equal opportunities, particularly gender and race equality. They provided training to help teachers consider how their day to day practice might be creating barriers or showing prejudice.
Many supported local interest groups of teachers engaged in encouraging girls into science and technology, or developing a multicultural and anti-racist curriculum. The curriculum work of the Inner London Education Authority was a model, but this also happened in many other areas. The authority where I worked supported groups of teachers working on world music, local working class history and Asian languages, for example.
Building a bridge
We can see education as a journey from the lives of our families and local communities into a space of public reason. One role of local authorities was building a bridge between the knowledge young people gained from their home communities and the academic knowledge needed for success at school and participation in adult life.
In the last two years half of England’s secondary schools have become academies, eroding the local authority’s ability to support the remaining schools. In their place, a new kind of educational business is linking together collections of academies.
The full effects remain to be seen, but there is a serious danger in powerful commercial entities imposing their idea of corporate mission rather than the shared sense of purpose which developed in many education authorities serving everybody living in the area. Headteachers who were promised “freedom” from local authority “bureaucracies” have found themselves subject to the decisions of edu-business executives, and behind them the direct rule of national government.
Education authorities used to cover all kinds of educational provision: nurseries, schools, youth work, adult and community education, colleges. Increasingly they were expected to connect up different kinds of support for young people in difficulties. Even if some of the edu-businesses manage to develop a body of expertise to support classroom teachers, they will never be able to provide coherent support to children, families and communities.
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