The financial crisis has become the Tories' opportunity to pursue their own ideological goals of the smaller state and the closing down of services for those who need them most. The 'nasty party' is back and their progressive façade shattered. Nowhere is this starker than in the government's plans to tear up state education.
Michael Gove's Academies bill makes two equally regressive proposals, which, if realised, will seriously threaten comprehensive education in England. Firstly, it encourages maintained schools to convert to independent academies free from local authority control. Already head teachers from outstanding schools have been invited to apply for academy status.
Secondly, it proposes that groups of parents or teachers apply for funding to start their own free school - 'DIY schools'. A move that would drain the existing local school of finance, resources, pupils and staff: threatening its very existence.
Grove has already vetoed Labour's extension of the free school meals programme affectively blocking 500,000 children below the poverty line claiming a meal. This money taken from the poorest children in our society, as well as money from the Building Schools for the Future programme, will fund the free schools 'experiment'.
As the bill is fast-tracked through parliament it raises many questions and answers few. How will new academies select their pupils? How will they ensure that children with additional needs are supported? Who are these schools accountable to? To what extent will the private sector be involved in sponsoring these schools? And, perhaps most importantly of all, will this not create a two-tier system education system? For Alasdair Smith, National Secretary of the Anti-Academies Alliance, the answer to the last question is a resounding yes, '... academies plans threaten to create a system of the 'best and the rest' ... For every free school, another will have to shut'.
On Thursday 24 June, under the dome of Westminster Methodist Hall resistance began to be organised under the positive banner, 'a good local school for everyone'. Over 250 attended the Anti-Academies Alliance public meeting, including teachers, head teachers, governors, parents and union members. Christine Blower, general secretary of NUT described the nationwide alliance as 'a large coalition opposed to the government'. The hall buzzed with a heated discussion, centered around one pressing issue: the defence of state education.
Executive union representatives from education and public sector unions, education campaigners and a head teacher spoke at the meeting.
Parent campaigner Fiona Millar stressed that as funding would be diverted from maintained schools to start up free schools, communities up and down the country would be split. She went on to state: 'Don't believe Michael Gove when he says that academies will have fair admissions policies. It will be impossible to enforce them and academies will find ways of admitting those who are easier to teach.'
Indeed academies are well known for having stringent admission policies and only allowing those children in who are likely to boost the school's league table results.
Maintained schools are under a duty to accept all those in their catchment area. In contrast, academies are under no such obligation and those who do not meet the standard - such as children from difficult backgrounds or vulnerable children with additional support needs -will inevitable fall through the gap. As one concerned parent put it, 'Our kids will be fighting for their lives.'
Many parents at the meeting expressed anger at the sheer undemocratic nature of the bill. Not only were they not consulted on whether their child's school should apply for academy status but, if made reality, the school would be accountable only to governors and the secretary of state. Parents, teachers, local councilors and thus the community at large would be excluded from any decision-making process. What appears to be freedom would be greater central control.
Paramjit Bhutta, a head teacher in Tower Hamlets, spoke of his experience working in a maintained school and an academy. He shared how under a maintained school he was accountable to a local authority whose inspectors 'got under the very skin of the school' to ensure assessment accuracy and openness. He argued that any school who achieves an outstanding Ofsted report does not do so in isolation but with the in-depth advice and support of the local authority, 'In my borough 78 per cent of schools are good or better. They didn't become so by being independent.'
Privatisation of state education
Christina McAnea from Unison highlighted the fact that free schools and academies will be allowed to enforce their own flexible pay and conditions on staff. Chartered schools in the US are a good example of this. In New Orleans, where chartered schools have sprung up in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, many request that teachers work longer and longer hours with shorter holidays. A key question facing chartered school leaders is 'how to maintain momentum as teachers inevitably ... burn out.'
Another example, this time closer to home, can be found in Crest Boys' Academy in Brent, north-west London. This is one of the UK's most deprived boroughs and several academy staff are facing compulsory redundancy. At the same time E-Act, the charitable trust that runs Crest Boys' Academy pays its director general, Sir Bruce Liddington, a staggering £265,000 a year. Clearly in many academies not only are pay, conditions and standards lax but so is their conception of equity and justice.
Alasdair Smith spoke of how this was essentially the privatisation of state education. This point is perhaps one of the most worrying for anyone who maintains that 'private profit and public service are irreconcilable'.
Grove has admitted that he has no objections to private profiteering in education. But it is simply inconceivable that we could let ex-weapons manufacturers and hedge fund managers run our children's education.
As free schools will need advice, support, and facilities, no longer provided by the local authority, they will turn to private providers to supply the teaching and it is profit not children that motivates these companies. As Nick Grant, from the NUT, has forcibly argued:
'Like all capitalist companies these private providers want to make profits, and they do so by shrinking each school's pay bill. This means employing many fewer qualified teachers and using much more ICT-based and assistant-supervised rote learning.'
What to do next?
As the meeting drew to a close, Christine Blower pointed out that as the list of schools expressing interest in becoming academies will be published, it is imperative that staff and parents find out if their school is on the list.
If so, those involved with the school must urgently begin a local campaign by petitioning, public meetings, leafleting, writing to MPs and engaging with parents and governors. It is essential to demand a full and proper consultation before any resolution is reached.
Blower stressed that while strike action is always an option, it cannot be fully effective without broad support. Many at the meeting believed that if parents and the wider community knew all the facts regarding academies and free schools the majority would join the struggle.
For more info or to get involved visit: www.antiacademies.org.uk