Saturday 7 February 2015

Education at What Price? Politics, Power & Privatisation

Over the past 5 years, we have witnessed the fragmentation of our entire education system.  This process has moved at an incredible pace.  In May 2010, there were just 203 academies, all of which were sponsored.  By January 2015, this had reached 4404, representing around 13% of primary schools and 55% of secondary schools.  Whilst there is strong evidence that the rate of conversion is slowing, this is a staggering change in under 5 years.

We now have a plethora of different school types with a range of 'freedoms' such as not following the national curriculum or setting their own term dates and yet evidence from the government's own enforcer, OFSTED, shows that these structural changes have done nothing to improve education.  This is backed up by the detail of the statistics for local authority schools and sponsored academies.

More worryingly, though, OFSTED actually suggested that one of the key factors holding schools back may be their isolation:

"There is an additional reason, however, why so many secondary schools are failing to progress. It’s not only because they haven’t got the basics right but also because they lack meaningful support and necessary challenge. And they lack these because too many of them are isolated"

The problem here is clear.  Where schools previously had a network of support in the local authority, with teams of experienced advisors, CPD provision, leadership support, etc., these have been completely eroded.  It seems that the much-vaunted 'freedoms' academies can enjoy include complete freedom from any support when things are not going so well.

Now much of this was sold at the time as cutting the bureaucracy of local government and moving to a new system of school-to-school support.  And certainly the model of collaboration between schools and joint work between professionals to improve the educational experience of the children and communities they serve should be welcomed.  But this kind of collaboration needs a framework within which it can flourish.

This is exactly what the best local authorities did.  They provided a framework for collaboration between schools, with external support where necessary, to improve education for local children.

I am not saying this always worked perfectly in practice or that there was no room for improvement but to replace it with nothing seems short-sighted in the least, and now we are reaping the rewards.  Struggling schools are isolated and there is no-one left to support them.

The question we have to ask ourselves, though, is was it short-sighted or was this the intended outcome?  The pattern is very familiar.  It is not just schools which have been hit by the fragmentation of our education system.

Around 18 months ago, the national pay structure for teachers was abolished a nd replaced by performance-related pay determined institution by institution.  All of the evidence suggests that PRP in schools will not improve education and has the potential to make the profession even less attractive, contributing the the mounting recruitment crisis, and yet the fragmentation of pay was implemented without a second thought.

Similarly, one of the government's most unpopular education policies has been the removal of the right to be taught by a qualified teacher.  This has been combined with the breaking up of traditional routes into teaching and an attack on the role of universities in ensuring that future teachers have a real grounding in pedagogy.  International evidence suggests that allowing state-funded independent schools (such as academies) to employ whoever they want to teach, regardless of qualification, leads unsurprisingly to a drop in educational standards.  Similarly, the break up of traditional routes into teaching and the lack of planning and oversight for Schools Direct has contributed the the growing crisis in teacher recruitment.  Yet the fragmentation of teacher training continues.

The reality is that, whilst this fragmentation is deeply concerning for anyone who cares about children's education, it does not seem to worry the government at all.

And why would it?

This government's approach to education has been firmly founded on a form of free market extremism that Milton Friedman or Friedrich Hayek would have been proud of.

As Thatcher said when she introduced local management of schools in the 1988 Education 'Reform' Act, "money will flow to the good schools and good headmasters".  Meanwhile, those the market deems 'failures' will be progressively deprived of funding until they go to the wall like any other failed business.  The only question is, what happens to those children who are trapped in these schools, the least mobile consumers, otherwise know as our most vulnerable children.

The problem is that this free market fundamentalism only works if you look at schools as production units and education as the production of human capital.  If that is the case, then one final step is needed to complete the marketisation and privatisation of education - the introduction of for-profit state funded schools.  Both the present and previous education secretaries have made it clear they have no opposition in principle to state funded education being provided on a for-profit basis and it is widely suspected that a re-elected Tory government after May 2015 would introduce just this.

This is one very good reason to work between now and the 7th May to ensure David Cameron, Michael Gove and co are not re-elected.  It also makes the NUT's upcoming conference on privatisation such an important event.  Taking place, as it does, just days after the election, this will be a key opportunity to reassess our strategy in relation to privatisation and to look at how we can all work to protect our education system on a local, regional and national basis.

Education at What Price? Politics, Power & Privatisation - click here to book a place.

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