Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
It may come as a surprise to many people, but state schools aren’t failing. You won’t read that in the papers, or hear it from the mouths of the new coalition ministers. But most are much better than they were 13 years ago when the Conservatives were last in power. Fewer fail their Ofsted inspections, under a much tougher regulatory regime; achievement is higher; more young people, including those from less well off backgrounds, go to university; and – guess what? – most parents are happy with the education their children receive, according to recent research from RISE (Research and Information on State Education).
It is important to hang on to these facts just now, because we are facing a wall of propaganda from both media and politicians claiming the opposite is true. It is a dangerous game, as it unsettles many parents. But it has a driving purpose: to pave the way for and justify the most ideological and reckless set of ‘reform’ proposals for a generation.
No one would deny, least of all me, as the chair of two school governing bodies in inner London, that the status quo is not good enough. The gaps in attainment between the best and worst off pupils are still too great. But that is also an issue for society in general, as around 80 per cent of a child’s life chances are determined by influences outside the school. Without action on poverty, income inequality, poor housing and neighbourhood renewal, schools will still struggle with their most vulnerable, needy pupils. However, the sort of changes being set in train risk undermining the good work schools can do, and may undo much of the recent improvement.
Cuts will invariably affect the most vulnerable children because non-statutory services such as extended schools, Sure Start and parenting programmes will suffer. The shameful decision to axe the Building Schools for the Future programme, leaving 700 schools without the new buildings they had been promised, will have a similar effect.
Meanwhile, the ‘review’ of school capital spending has a clear agenda: to bring as many private, and profit-making, providers into the state education system as possible; to build ‘free schools’ for individual parent groups; and to encourage a massive expansion of academies – independent state schools that are answerable directly to the secretary of state, not their local communities, via a commercial contract.
These plans risk several things. Creating surplus places in areas where they are not needed will damage existing schools, which may lose pupils (often taking the most challenging in their place) and revenue funding, which in turn usually leads to cuts in staff, difficulties in recruitment and a downward spiral. The Tories like to describe this sort of ‘competitive’ pressure as healthy because it leads either to improvement or closure. The reality is very unhealthy. Schools die slowly, and being a pupil while that process takes place is not a pleasant experience.
They will also increase the number of schools with ‘freedoms’ in areas such as admissions, special educational needs (SEN) and exclusions. There is evidence of academies already operating unofficial quotas of SEN pupils and very high exclusions. And wherever you give schools more freedom over their admissions, they inevitably find ways of admitting the children who are easier to teach and somehow lose the ones who are the hardest, usually to the local maintained community school.
Even if the new funding agreements – commercial contracts that govern academies and free schools – do include requirements to have regard to SEN legislation and the admissions code, they will be impossible to enforce with thousands of schools run from the centre and no role for local authorities.
The new proposals will lead to more profit-making companies involved in state education. Most parents won’t actually be able to set up schools on their own, which is why the New Schools Network, run by a former adviser to Michael Gove and already given £500,000 by this government, is pointing them in the direction of private ‘partners’. This fits neatly with the avowed aim of the coalition to ‘reduce the size of the state’. But the Gove plans will be divisive and create ill will in communities across the country where some parents and children will see others benefiting at their expense.
The risk for those who oppose the current direction, and did so when the last Labour government set it in motion, is that we will be characterised as anti-reform and anti-school improvement. We are not. There are many radical reforms that would work in favour of a high quality, equitable and democratically accountable schools system, if only politicians on our side had the courage to articulate them.
The first would be to bring all independent state schools back into the maintained system, where the rights of pupils, teachers and parents are properly protected. ‘Independence’ is not a magic bullet that will guarantee success. The patchy record of the existing academies makes that clear.
The second would be to champion the role of local authorities, not in ‘running’ schools, which they haven’t done for several decades, but in ensuring fair funding, encouraging collaboration, holding the ring when it comes to special needs, admissions and exclusions, and as providers of high quality early years provision.
Then we could promise a complete overhaul of school admissions, abolishing selection by ability and outlawing other forms of social selection that continue to discriminate against the poorest children.
Heads and teachers should have more autonomy over what and how they teach, but every child should also have an entitlement to a broad, balanced curriculum and a simplified system of qualifications, not the hotchpotch of different exams we have now.
Schools are not businesses. They have a wider function in society. Many of the things they do, like inclusion, community cohesion and looking after children with special needs, are hard to quantify and don’t lend themselves to a profit-and-loss approach.
But it is standards of teaching and leadership in schools that really matter, not structures. If there is spare cash around, it should be invested in staff, IT and the sorts of facilities that our new political leaders were able to enjoy in their elite fee-paying schools, not diverted into the pockets of private companies.
Most parents want some choice, not of schools that are radically different, but of good local schools with balanced intakes, well-resourced buildings, good behaviour, teaching and leadership. The good local school, offering a high quality education to children from all backgrounds, is a simple, powerful message. If you want to fight back on behalf of local schools, rather than new, or free ones, get in touch on truthschoolsat]googlemail.com or via my website [www.thetruthaboutourschools.com
Michael Calderbank profiles Jeremy Corbyn's new supporters in parliament
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continues to witness devastating political violence, but the world refuses to act. Ishiaba Kasonga and Serge Egola Angbakodolo ask why?
When fire safety has become a privilege for the rich, it’s time to stop austerity and fund emergency mass works to raise standards immediately, writes Jane Shallice
The election result has irreversibly changed political discourse in the UK, writes James Fox
In commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Bernie Grant's election to parliament, Ayo Wallace explores the life and legacy of his radical representation of Tottenham's black communities.
Across Britain, hundreds of thousands of people have now taken part in mass rallies for Corbyn's Labour. Eli Regan soaks up the atmosphere in Warrington
The under-30s could be decisive in the general election. Frances Grahl meets young people hit by Tory austerity and looks at what's driving their support for Labour
“To them it’s just another number, someone else being sent back. But when you’ve got three children being left without their dad … it’s quite major,” writes Rebecca Omonira-Okeykanmi.
Hundreds of people surrounded the fences this weekend. Hera Lorandos spoke to women who have suffered inside.
Grassroots posters giving an alternative take on the general election
The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.
An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now
The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee
Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell
Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths
Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe
How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency
Empire en vogue
Nadine El-Enany examines the imperial pretensions of Britain's post-Brexit foreign affairs and trade strategy
Grenfell Tower residents evicted from hotel with just hours’ notice
An urgent call for support from the Radical Housing Network
Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker
In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing
After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry
Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again
Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood
7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.
After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani
If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945
On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.
Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow
The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite
Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.
Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports
On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.
Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns
Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below
The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections
In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines
Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.