Sunday 15 January 2012

The battle for Brent schools - which side is Labour on?

The battle against academies and free schools has reached a tipping point, author and campaigner Melissa Benn told the AntiAcademies Alliance AGM yesterday. The battle being waged by teachers, parents and governors of Downsides Primary School against enforced conversion to an academy had exposed  the contradiction between Michael Gove's rhetoric of freedom and autonomy and his actual use of coercion.

Benn said that the over-funding of 'good schools' converting to academies or of parents setting up free schools was the government 'empowering the affluent'.  She said that there were three main element's in Gove's programme:

1. A fundamental change in the provision of state education with the academies' links to outside bodies separating them from the local community. Despite government denials the long-term aim, via the 'educational chains' such as E-ACT, ARK and Oasis was privatisation and profit-making. She said that there was no evidence that autonomy itself led to improvement. Where there was improvement it was probably due to increased funding, however that was drying up and the Financial Times recently revealed that the DfE had to bail out eight financially failing academies at the cost of £10m to the tax payer.
2. Gove wants to preserve and expand all forms of current non-LA provision including the expansion of grammar schools via 'satellite' schools and changes in the Admissions Code. This will increase selection and social class and religious segregation.
3. Fundamental changes in the learning culture of schools. She contrasted the broad and creative curriculum and relaxed learning culture of Eton and Wellington public schools which she had visited recently  with the narrowing of the curriculum in academies (depth replacing breadth) and a coercive ethos producing a climate of fear. Academies had in effect 'captured' children for longer hours (often 8.30am until 5pm) and teachers, parents and pupils were often frightened of the management as the school pursued its aim of 'results at all costs'. Anyone arguing against this culture was told that they were supporting failure.
Melissa Benn advised the audience to keep an eye on the US Chartered Schools which served as a model for Gove. We need to argue that some of the most successful schools internationally are non-selective and make the case for increased government funding, small classes, time for teachers to prepare lessons and ongoing teacher assessment rather than SATs.  Subsequent discussion focused on how Ofsted was being used as a political weapon against local authority schools  with the appointment of ARK adviser Sir Michael  Wilshaw as Chief Inspector.

A group of parents from Downside Primary School started by extolling the virtues of a school that did not just concentrate on SAT results but had a broad and enriching curriculum in a child-friendly atmosphere. The children had recently won a national art prize. They were shocked at the enforced academy move by Michael Gove based solely on SAT results but quickly organised, speaking personally to members of the different communities of the school, publicising the issue and using social media to spread the word, They have been lucky in that local MP David Lammy was an ex-pupil of the school and although pro-academy had been against enforcement and had spoken at their public meeting attended by more than 600 people LINK as well as raising the issue in the House of Commons. LINK The parents said that the under-funding of Haringey schools compared with neighbouring boroughs was of fundamental importance and a campaigning on the issue would appeal to parents. There will be a demonstration on Saturday 28th January at noon in support of Downside. I will post details when they are available. It seemed to me clear that primary schools with their strong parent links, good school gate communication opportunities and community ethos will be in a good position to fight academy conversion compared with the more isolated secondary schools.

In my contribution from the floor I drew the meeting's attention to the importance of making the link between cuts and academy conversions. Conversions took money away from the local authority while the cuts in services made by local authorities made arguing  for the benefits of remaining a local authority school harder.In Brent the council in planning to set up a 'public enterprise' provider along the lines of the Cooperative Trust offer, was undermining its own existence.

Alasdair Smith, National Secretary of the AAA, said that Gove was pursuing a full 'for profit' agenda. The shortage of school places was being used as an argument for more 'energetic providers' (private chains) to move in. He felt Downshill was a turning point with Michael Gove worried about the slow down (perhaps because of forecasts that extra money was drying up) in conversions that had taken place since October 2011. He said that he had addressed 50 meetings on the issue over the lasy year but that we now needed a mass movement against Gove's policies.  He praised the Green Party for its consistent anti-academies policy.

The last session was devoted to a discussion on the Labour Party and Academies.  There was recognition of the divergence of local Labour group's attitudes with some fiercely for academies and some militantly against (The Brent Executive has both within its ranks). Stephen Twigg, the Labour shadow had avoided the issue by saying that he did not want to 'get into a hackneyed debate about structures' while Labour was not saying the same thing bout the NHS. Labour needed to live down its pro-academy history and think again, adopting a clear policy against academies and free schools. A Labour councillor said that we should beware of 'friends' such as the Cooperative Trust with their ethical cooperative claims when schools had always been cooperative institutions. Local authorities needed to come out and defend their role rather than be supine in the face of the Coalition's attacks.

Richard Hatcher (joint author of No country for the young: Education from  new Labour to the Coalition- Tufnell Press) said that Labour needed to fight on both structure of education and content of education, support campaigns against academies and free schools , and debate what a Labour government would do with what it will inherit in 2015 if elected. One speaker from Unison said that she had joined the Labour Party in  order to influence their education policy. Other speakers aid there was a need to focus on the huge salaries paid to academy headteachers and chief executives as well as the amount of public money being spent of academies and free schools as a whole.

All these issues are extremely pertinent as Brent Labour has organised a meeting for Labour nominated governors and anti-academy teachers on Wednesday, 7.30pm at the Stonebridge Hub which will be addressed by Melissa Benn.

Melissa Benn, School Wars-The Battle for Britain's Education, Verso

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