Thursday, 26 September 2013

The Need for a National Campaign for Education

Writing on Wembley Matters I have repeatedly criticised Michael Gove's neoliberal reforms in education, the privatisation agenda represented by academies and free schools, and the way the emphasis on test results and league tables narrows the very concept of education and deprives children of their childhood.

The Anti-Academies Alliance has recognised the may strands of this battle and I fully support their support for a National Campaign for Education.

In this report Alasdair Smith, National Secretary  of the Anti Academies Alliance, outlines the issues and notes in passing the Green Party's opposition to the neoliberal vision.
Rumour has it that policy wonks in the DfE are hard at work on how to manage “market failures”.
Indeed the number of failing academies is soaring.  But then ‘failure’ is hardwired into a system of rationed exam success, the ever-changing goalpost of OFSTED and unbridled greed of ‘social entrepreneurs’ who now claim they have a special responsibility to transform education. Peter Hyman – pass the sick bucket please.

The wheels of big business intervention are in full motion.  I have looked, to no avail, to find figures on the increase in rate of investment by education businesses over the last 10 years. My guess it is huge. Rupert Murdoch’s re-branded edu-business – Amplify ( ) is clearly backed by huge investment.  Not surprisingly alongside big money, comes a whiff of corruption - nepotism, dishonesty and manipulation swirls around the system – with exam cheating, pilfering public money and appointing family members now part of Gove’s dystopian nightmare.

Revelations that several academies have adopted Section 28 style policy outlawing 'promotion of homosexuality’ come as no surprise. Deregulation and privatisation - what Gove calls 'autonomy' - can be a licence for bigotry. The outcry raised by the British Humanist Association report has forced the government into a review but we will need hard proof that no school has Section 28 style clauses in future.

The scandal of free schools is even worrying the likes of Graham Stuart – the Tory chair of Education Select Committee. The huge costs, obvious lack of value for money and, most disgracefully, the fact that free schools are opening in areas where there is no need for places is causing huge concern.
There is a ticking time bomb over the shortage of school places. Some parts of London now have several 5 form entry primary schools and are considering split shift education provision unless funding is dramatically increased.

Of course Gove will point to the odd ‘success’ in his new world order. But does he ask about the failures? And what will he do about them?

Is resistance to academy conversion futile?

The academy conversion process is now so clinical, so undemocratic and so dishonest that local campaigns rise and fall within weeks. Schools are handed to sponsors on a plate by DfE brokers. As John Harris argued in the Guardian last week there is murky relationship between OFSTED and academisation ( )

This means there is little chance to build sustained campaign as happened at Downhills. Yet parents are still willing to fight. Neither Gove nor academy conversion is popular. Gove is hated by the profession. There is a profound sense that our communities are being bullied into conversion.

People understand that this policy is the same as policy as the privatising of the NHS. But unfortunately the patterns of resistance are similar to NHS too, although the sporadic protests tend to be even smaller.

One reason for the absence of serious resistance is that Stephen Twigg’s criticism of Gove’s policies has been too muted. Other Labour politicians have offered more - for example Andy Burnham's trenchant defence of comprehensive education. In some areas Labour MPs have worked hard to stem the tide and build alliances with parents and the profession.  But the few national policy announcement’s seems to be little more than ‘Gove lite’.

Elsewhere the Westminster village is in thrall to Gove. We should not believe for one minute that the Lib Dems are holding back Gove. David Laws has been central to propping up elements of Gove’s agenda such as Schools Direct and privatisation of teacher training.

Apart from the Green Party, a few principled MPs and a handful of commentators, the political class remain wholly committed to this neoliberal vision, or what Finnish educationalist Pasi Salhberg calls GERM – Global Education Reform Movement.

It means we need to think long and hard about our approach to education reform. There have been some bold initiatives. CASE, SEA and others have created Picking up the Pieces. This has identified some key features of what a good education system would look like.  The NUT and Compass have joined together to run an enquiry into future of education. Both initiatives appear to be focused on persuading Labour to change its policy going into the next election.

The viability of that strategy is a matter of some debate. In contrast the AAA has continued to try to mobilise parents and staff in campaign at school level, but with limited success. But it has also argued that we need something more. We need a new vision for education that stimulates a nationwide debate and action on achieving it.

The terrain has changed. We are not fighting a single battle against academies, but a ‘war’ in several different areas of education: curriculum, school places, primary, pre-school, teacher training and so on. The scale and breadth of attacks is unprecedented.

If the terrain changes, the vehicle has to change

From the outset we argued that the academies programme was a ‘Trojan horse’ to help break up state education as part of a much grander design to deregulate and privatise the whole system. That prediction is now becoming a reality. But just opposing academies and free schools does not always offer the best opportunities to fight back against Gove. Increasingly much of the secondary sector is now conditioned to academy status. And although academisation is new to the primary sector, it remains rare that single schools fighting alone stop conversion.

Our arguments about the real nature of the academies programme have stood the test of time, but our ability to halt it remains limited. So for the last couple of years the AAA has argued for a National Campaign for Education (NCE) to unite campaigns to create a greater sense of common purpose and above all to articulate ideas around what sort of education system we want not just what we are against.

There are many other areas of education policy on which Gove is more vulnerable. New campaigns are emerging all the time. The multiplicity of different campaigns working on different projects and timescales continue. Avoiding this sort of duplication of effort is a good argument for an NCE. But here is also another more compelling argument. The historic agreement between the NUT and NASUWT for joint programme of action that began on 27th June and will continue on 1st and 17th October offers new hope of resistance across the profession.

Whatever the success of the joint action there remains a job to be done for an NCE. It needs to keep alive ideas of what it means to have a comprehensive, progressive and democratic education system. It needs to engage in popularising a wholly different vision of education based on key ideas of the Finnish system - equality & ‘less is more’. But crucially this shared theoretical vision needs some genuine prospect of realisation for it to have any meaning. So the NCE needs to have a campaigning edge. It needs to take the debate on the future of education into schools and communities up and down the country.

As was reported at the AGM in March, progress towards an NCE has been slow. Support for it was agreed at NUT and UNISON conferences and a few practical steps have been taken.

The AAA is committed to working towards an NCE, but there remains plenty of work for us to do. Our primary function of supporting local campaign continues.

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