Education in England: an update

November 2016

“When it comes to K through 12 education (4 – 18 Years old), we see a $500 billion sector in the US alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed by big break-throughs that extend the reach of great teaching.”

Rupert Murdoch, Press Release, November 2010

The opening up of the education market to private providers has reached something of a stand-still or a stand-off in England over the last year. A government White Paper in April 2016 proposed that all schools become academies by 2022. A few weeks later the government abandoned this because of enormous resistance to the idea amongst teachers, parents and local councils. However, there is still plenty of momentum to the ongoing outsourcing and diversifying of state social services e.g. Richard Branson’s ‘Virgin Care’ has been given a seven year £700 million contract for adult social care in Bath and Somerset by the National Health Service; this is the first time a council’s core adult social work services will be directly delivered by a for-profit private firm.

The great majority of secondary schools are now overseen by private organisations of one sort or another and not the local council. The next phase of this re-structuring of provision should be aimed at primary schools (only 13% academies in March 2016) but a number of factors have slowed down the rapid pace of reform.

Firstly, there has been a constant stream of lurid stories in the press about the mismanagement of academies and academy chains. In 2015 seven ‘financial notices to improve’ were handed out to academy trusts; in 2016 this number has risen to twenty five. The Times Educational Supplement had a feature recently (TES 14.10.16) about five academy head teachers who have all fallen from grace:

  • Liam Nolan (Perry Beeches Academies, Birmingham): a string of financial breaches including paying himself a second salary
  • Sajid Raza (free schools, Bradford): jailed for fraud
  • Sir Peter Birkett (Barnfield Federation of academies): financial mismanagement, attempts to manipulate success rates and a massive payout on leaving three months before an ‘Education Funding Agency’ (EFA) enquiry
  • Greg Wallace (Best Start Federation of academies, Hackney): financial mismanagement, banned from teaching
  • Sir Greg Martin (Durand Academies Trust, South London): termination of the EFA’s funding agreement because of significant breaches

It’s worth remembering that they were all feted by Michael Gove during his time as Education Minister (2010 – 2014). Such stories were predicted by critics of the government’s academies program either because of the obvious opportunities that it presented to game the system or just because the unprecedented speed of the reforms was bound to lead to these sorts of unprincipled and criminal activities.

Another reason that the academies program has stalled is that primary schools are different environments to secondary schools. A significant number of secondary academies, inner-city ones in particular, successfully increased attendance and outcomes by insisting on what some people think of as ‘old-fashioned’ discipline. Changing the culture of a school in this way is easier to manage in a secondary school as the children are older and parents will tolerate it. Introducing the same sort of zero-tolerance approach in primary schools is less desirable and more likely to encounter resistance from parents. What’s more a recent study by the London School of Economics found that converting primary schools to academies failed to improve results (See 21.11.16 Guardian UK article ‘Making primary schools into academies does not improve results, study says’). Of course any number of similar studies would not influence the Department for Education because it is not pursuing a policy that is led by evidence.

Another reason that the academies program is stalling is parent and teacher resistance to the amount of testing that is now normal in primary schools. Rather than ongoing teacher assessment, an approach that values the insight and knowledge of the teacher, there is an ongoing cycle of tests. Typically this means a week of intensive exam experience every single term from the age of six onwards. A large conference in London (03.12.16) has brought together teachers’ unions, child psychotherapists and psychologists and parents’ action groups – with names like ‘Let Our Kids Be Kids’ and ‘Save Childhood Movement’ – under the moniker ‘More Than a Score’ www.morethanascore.co.uk. This conference represents a grassroots backlash against the unnecessary interference and ignorant mismanagement of education by politicians, bureaucrats and business interests.

As ever with the politics of education the Americans are ahead of the English here. The term ‘more than a score’ was coined in Chicago where the resistance to corporate reform of education by teachers and parents did a lot to raise awareness of the problems in that country www.morethanascorechicago.org. The eye-opener for communities generally, and not just teachers, was the blatant distortion of education through the use of standardised multiple choice tests. A quick glance at the history of such crude, standardised intelligence tests reveals their origins amongst American eugenicists of the 1920s whose pseudoscience promoted the ‘natural superiority’ of wealthy, white, U.S.-born males.

A book that examines American resistance to the corporate reform of education, with teacher and student voices throughout, is itself called ‘More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High Stakes Testing’ (2014). It’s written by Jesse Hagopian, a high school history teacher, who attacks the culture of what he calls ‘testucation’ led by the ‘testocracy’ (global education corporations). This same grassroots resistance is also found in the film ‘The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman’ made in 2011 (available to watch on Youtube). It was made by parents and teachers in New York who were incensed by the pro-business, anti-teachers and their unions film ‘Waiting for Superman’. ‘The Inconvenient Truth…’ film is a Grassroots Education Movement and Real Reform Studios Production (www.gemnyc.org). You can learn more about this here: www.waitingforsupermantruth.org It is this sort of grassroots resistance that is beginning to find a voice in England.

In June 2016, with the academies program losing momentum, the British Prime Minister Theresa May announced that she wanted more grammar schools to be established. Those pushing for more grammar schools like to talk about an increased ‘social mobility’ for those who attend them but, as with the success of academies compared to locally run schools, there is a lack of strong evidence that this is the case. A few months later (October) the plan for a wave of new grammar schools was abandoned, at least temporarily. Like the proposed enforced academisation of all schools the idea met with a multi-faceted public resistance from researchers, teachers and parents. Individual teachers and head teachers are continually forced to fret about the latest changes to the system, as well as all the proposed and then abandoned changes. At the same time school budgets are being drastically cut across the country. On this subject Sir Andrew Carter, former government adviser and chief executive of the South Farnham Educational Trust, recently said that financial contributions from parents could be the answer to these budget cuts  (TES 22.11.16). He suggested a figure of £500 per family per year, explaining that this would help schools to attract private sector investment. “Remember” said Sir Andrew “this is a government searching for ways to fund a complicated system.”

The current climate is very much one of teachers being acted upon and not one of teachers being agents of change. The best that teachers in England can hope for is an abandonment of bad ideas.

 

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