Education Secretary Michael Gove thought he would have more than a thousand schools straining to become independent of local control. After all, it was merely an acceleration of Labour policy. But the teaching profession has taught him a lesson…
Cocky, arrogant and ignorant, Michael Gove epitomises the attitude of this government. So confident was he that school governors and heads would eagerly rush to break links with their local councils and communities, that he has pushed his plans to turn thousands of schools into state-funded academies through parliamentary procedures at breakneck speed.
When he had decided that almost 1,500 schools “expressed an interest” in becoming an academy early in July, Gove arrogantly pronounced that most if not all these schools would become academies by September. What he failed to mention was that any school which registered on the website to obtain information would be added to the “expression of interest” list.
NUT local associations did some good work with a useful union briefing document in ringing round local schools on Gove’s list and discussing the implications with head teachers (although many heads said they had never intended to apply anyway!).
As the days went by and the expressions of interest did not rapidly translate into firm applications for academy status, head teachers found themselves receiving increasingly frequent and frenzied phone calls from the Department for Education. Heads were reminded of the money that might accrue; they were instructed to start TUPE negotiations and to take advantage of the legal advice available to them – all before the Academies Bill had been enacted and before governing bodies had had the opportunity to discuss any proposals to change their status.
In London, the representatives of various sponsors of existing academies were brazenly approaching schools with a view to securing an interest in any new academy trusts that would be established (that gives the trustees the direct ownership of the school’s capital assets).
Gove’s confidence began to wane, as there was no great rush to sign up. The daily pronouncements dried up even though the parliamentary opposition was muted – no promise to remove academy status if they were returned to government, for example.
By the third week in July, the word from the DfE was that the government would be more than delighted if they had 400 new academies up and running by September.
So they won’t be happy with the rather limited list of 153 schools that have applied: less than 10 per cent of those declared to be eligible for the first group and less than 1 per cent of all the schools in England.
This government’s intentions for publicly funded education were made clear by Gove from the beginning. Labour’s drive to break up local authorities by pushing them increasingly into a greatly reduced role, especially as commissioners of local education provision rather than as direct providers, and the associated privatising of school education, has simply been speeded up.
Anyone who doubts this should take a quick look at the relentless stream of Labour schools white papers, culminating in “Twenty-first Century Schools”, published shortly before they lost the 2010 election. They might not have been implemented so quickly under Labour, but Gove’s schools policies were essentially written for him by Ed Balls.
Just to take some examples from Labour’s record:
Battle for control
All of the above constituted an attack on education professionals in their workplaces and trade unions. That some good things happened under Labour is undeniable – children’s centres for instance – but the overwhelming thrust was disintegration of public education, attacking the very notion and reality of a state education “system” which can plan for the educational needs of a whole nation with a productive economy. It is a bitter irony that Ofsted now inspects schools on their promotion of “community cohesion”, when government has used the education system to break up communities.
Labour speeded up the process of opening up the system for private profit, broke up the effective system of local education authorities which know their local community of schools and act in the interests of all schools, set school against school, moved powers away from local authorities to central government, and did their best to undermine educational professionals at every opportunity. Schools are central to all governments – how they seek to educate the young is a crucial test of real intentions. Labour kicked open the door and Gove has simply walked through – no wonder he was able to act so swiftly.
So what should we do? A “fight all the cuts” approach is pathetic, and misses the point. It is undeniably true that money was wasted under Labour – especially in the promotion of hugely costly pet ministerial programmes with little basis in reality, on private consultancies and on quangos.
There has been struggle. A quarter of primary children did not sit the SATs tests this summer due to head teacher action, rendering the league tables due in the autumn fairly meaningless.
Since the election, the response so far to the academies carrot is heartening, and in spite of Labour’s policies there is real and potential power left in schools. We know that the agenda is now one of wielding the axe to cut jobs on the ground – what is the state of our unions in schools to be able to tackle this? The basic, hard day-to-day organisational work on the ground will be needed for us to be able to come together to fight.
How can a developed nation with an educated working class accept that “we just can’t afford “ educational progress, with schools run by professionals in the interests of all children and the country? A rejection of this notion and assertion of our agenda is the starting point.