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Market destroying state education

Coalition measures to encourage the creation of more academies and “free schools” are creating a market for learning, destroying at a stroke the right of all children to a decent state education.

This market takes the form of setting up, in each area, a number of different types of school, all in competition with each other for students and exam results.

Where once there was a community of comprehensive schools, cared for by a single authority, there are now academies, free schools, technology colleges, comprehensive schools and church schools, all in competition with each other.

This chaotic free-for-all, trumpeted by the Tories for giving parents the freedom of choice, is in fact leading to a two-tier or even three-tier education system that guarantees unfairness.

The academies have private sponsors though they are funded directly by the state, the free schools are run by private outfits (often churches or businesses) and they all have different selection criteria, a situation which quickly leads to a polarisation.

As is often the case with Tory policies, the impetus and the pioneering work for this unfair system comes from New Labour. It was the Blair government that turned its back on the comprehensive model towards a return to the old divisive grammar school/ secondary modern system, but with different names.

New Labour set up academies in the secondary sector and encouraged the growth of so-called faith schools. The Tories have seized on the idea, inviting any school to apply for academy status. Many of the strongest secondary schools, as well as some primaries, have done exactly that. Michael Gove, the education secretary, has recently announced that the “weakest” 200 primary schools will become academies in September 2012, thus undermining early-school education.

It is usually the head teacher, supported by the governors, who decides to convert to academy status because they see financial advantages for the school, and because they will have some control over selection – i.e. they can select unfairly, and can keep out problem children and those on school meals.

Parents and the teaching staff (who, unbelievably are not amongst those groups that the government suggests should be consulted) often do not agree. Conflict follows. Teachers and parents at Haverstock School, in Camden, North London, succeeded last week in forcing the head teacher and the governors to abandon their plan to become an academy.

The school, which boasts both Milliband brothers as former pupils, is a high-achieving one, but the prompt formation of a protest campaign forced a rapid re-think by the head, who said the school was not willing to be at the centre of a politicised debate for a long period.

For the Tories, breaking up state education has obvious advantages. As a pamphlet produced by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers points out. Instead of a national education service, locally administered, the ATL says, we are moving towards a national service, privately administered, funded by the taxpayer, but with all democratic accountability lost.

Private companies can move in, and many are queuing up for a slice of the action. Babcock Education made £23.6 million out of education in 2009, and has dreams of running a chain of 1,000 schools. ARK (Absolute Return for Kids) which calls itself a “philanthropic co-operative” runs eight academies and was set up and run by hedge fund managers.

The other great advantage for the Tories of creating academies and free schools is that they operate under private school legislation. They are not bound by any national or local agreements with the teaching unions. The considerable power of the unions can be gradually eroded, teacher’ pay cut, while head teachers become “fat cats”.

State schools are being re-organised to benefit the middle classes and churchgoers. As the private companies move in, looking for profits even if they are charities, so the life chances for children living in families on or below the poverty line plummet.

Peter Arkell
4 October 2011

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