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A Good Education Is A Right, Not A Commodity

June 1, 2017

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Marketisation, Selection And Unaccountability: England And Her Schools

April 25, 2017

 

The takeover of England’s schools by the market continues, like a dollop of dog excremental rolling down a snowy hill and gathering mass and speed. Nothing can stop it. Not teachers, not parents, not education groups. Most of us know that it stinks and don’t want anything to do with it, but free marketeers and right-wingers seemingly have a massive appetite for the ball of shit and toss it back and forth. Meanwhile we all lose out. 


Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own education systems, hence the concentration on England’s crazy experiment with more market forces, more religion and less accountability. Full disclosure: I spent seventeen years working in education; six in FE and the rest in the secondary sector. I do have a few axes to grind, simply through bitter experience, and what I see as catastrophic mistakes that have nothing to do with improving the education of the nation’s children, but has everything to do with ideology and power.  There is so much wrong with the Tory approach to education I seriously don’t know where to start. And as I write I hear that the government has agreed to take part in an international pilot scheme regarding exams for young students. Germany, Scotland and the Scandinavian countries declined to take part. That tells us a lot. And it is all so utterly predictable. 

 

Thanks to academisation and the free schools programme, it’s no longer possible for a local authority to set up a school. How did we get to this? How have we let this happen? I think a perfect illustration of the Tory approach to education is summed up by the case of one John Nash. He is also known as ‘Lord’ Nash, and therefore sits in government simply by dint of his unelected promotion to the House of Lords. He is also a Tory donor and a businessman. But this is nothing. Until we join the dots we can’t see the picture. His business/charity interests meant he was able to sponsor two academies in London. So a schools minister, a man with no mandate and in charge of academies, gets to set up a chain of academies.  But then it turns out his daughter, who is not qualified to teach, has been teaching at one of these academies. How is this allowed to happen? We all shake our heads at the ludicrousness of it all, knowing that nothing will ever change. Of course, being a Tory Nash seems to think it’s perfectly fine to treat this school as his own personal pet project. 


So this the sort of approach we’re dealing with. No conflict of interest at all, so Nash claims. But also no mandate and total indifference to complaints from taxpayers who object to this man treating academies as he personal fiefdom. He is a disgrace, but then he’s a Tory, so what do we seriously expect?  Well, we expect them to run our education into the ground, and with grammar schools that’s exactly what they’re doing. Not content with fragmenting our system even more, they now want yet more selection. 

 

We’re all familiar with the arguments for and against grammar schools, and many in the Conservative Party even oppose them.  But Justine Greening and Theresa May are determined they will ‘work for everyone, and not just the few’. We already know how hollow this is. It’s so hollow there’s not even any straw; it’s just hot air all the way through. Data from the Institute For Fiscal Studies suggests an 8% drop in real-terms spending per pupil between 2014/15 to 2019/20, and the cuts are starting to bite (and are only going to get worse). So what do the Tories expect grammar schools will achieve? The reasoning behind them is so vague and nebulous there’s no point even quoting either May or Greening on the issue. In fact on a BBC interview on 13th April Greening couldn’t name one expert or respected educational commentator who supported the plans.  

 

 

For me, grammar schools represent an admission of total failure with their approach to education. They didn’t introduce academies but were very keen to support them, and then introduce free schools along the same anti-local authority dogmatic lines. And May had been in her new office of prime minister a few days before she announced, thanks to pressure from the Catholic and Jewish education lobbies, that selection in up to 100% of schools places at Catholic and Jewish schools can now take place. And how long before the Anglican church wants a slice of that selective pie? Or Muslim schools, or Hindu schools, or Sikh schools? 


It is nothing less than a total disaster for societal cohesion that faith schools are allowed to exist. I worked in one for six years, and the sight of students removed from their normal lessons for communion was utterly depressing, or a senior member of staff trying to convert them to Christianity with his fact-free assemblies. When did schools become extensions of places of worship? I have written to government about this issue on many occasions and still have yet to receive anything approaching a proper response. “But we’re allowed to educate our children as we see fit!” shout many parents, unaware that this right has never been extended to non-religious parents. And the fact that all schools have to follow the stipulation found in the 1944 education act, which states regular acts of religious worship is compulsory, means in effect no non-faith schools can exist. This also runs contrary to article 19 of the UN Convention of Human Rights, of which the UK is a signatory. And yet more and more faith schools are established. A third of all free schools are religious in nature. And yet free schools were supposed to be there to meet a need that wasn’t being met locally. Given there’s thousands of faith schools within the state system, how does creating yet more of more help a society already hugely fragmented along sectarian lines? Simply put, all schools should exist to cater for all children, regardless of the religion of the parents. If you object to that then you are to be pitied. Parents should decide their own approach on how best to introduce their children to religion, if at all. It absolutely is not the job of the state. But, it seems, the state, the very thing the Tories hate, still looms very large when they decide it ought to. 


A few years ago Michael Gove, when in ‘charge’ of education, boasted that his own daughter went to a comprehensive state school. This state school was all-girls, and a selective Anglican school, so I’m not sure how that qualifies in any way as a state school, but again, that’s the Tories for you. The distinctions are so blurred as to be entirely meaningless. But then Gove dismissed anyone opposed to his reforms as ‘the blob’, whether they were teachers, parents or unions. Such a simple mind. It’s also worth pointing out that the last school I worked in was one of the first to be build under the Conservative’ replacement for BSF. That meant a new building at a cost of £14m, as opposed to the one we were due, which was £25m. This was for 1240 students. For the sake of comparison, Gove pushed through his pet project when Ed Sec – which was a free school for 500 students at the unbelievable cost of 45 million of our pounds. These examples go to show how utterly out of control Gove was. He can be dismissed, and has been. But what about Labour? What do they propose?

 

 I’d like to see Labour oppose faith schools. I think Corbyn’s emphasis on education as a public good is excellent, as is the policy of smaller class sizes.

And Corbyn has a life-long approach to education, in that he sees it in a cradle-to-grave context, truly for all regardless of age. Which means investing in FE colleges and not slashing their funding, which is what the Tories are doing. Corbyn has also committed his government to ensuring all schools are returned to local authority control, that the ‘asset-stripping’ of academisation will end. As he said himself “there is not a shred of evidence that academies automatically improve standards”.  Corbyn has also promised to look at the charitable status enjoyed by private schools. It seems a long time since Crosland said: “If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to destroy every f***ing grammar school in England, and Wales and Northern Ireland.”  It’s such a shame he didn’t apply this philosophy to private schools. But where Crosland failed, let us hope Corbyn succeeds. 

 

This ‘National Education Service’ is exactly what we need at a time when state schools are being sold off to private sector interests and the fatuous localism agenda is nothing of the sort. Every day, parents, unions and teachers are pushed aside as the Conservatives pursue a frankly lunatic agenda of privatisation. For example, how long before they demand all schools make a profit? More than ever we need to embrace Corbyn’s idea that learning is “every bit as vital and free at the point of use as our NHS”. It’s very telling that the Tories see both education and the NHS as up for grabs at a time when their free market vulture friends start to circle. And we’ve already seen what they’ve done to education. 

 

 

Max Webster is the Editor of Political Provocateur

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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