JANUARY 2019 was a milestone in education history in the UK as it marked the point when more than 50% of pupils were being educated in academy schools.
This transformational shift from public to private education began under the Blair/Brown New Labour administration and has been rapidly accelerated under the Tories. When Labour left office in 2010 there were around 200 academy schools. Today there are over 8,000. How did education so quickly become reshaped from a public service to a site for private profit? It is an amazing transition in purpose. From a state system of socialising our children to build the next generation of society, it is now meeting the needs of an inefficient, lazy, international market place in search of easy pickings.
We will examine the corrosive effect that privatisation of our schools has had. However, our priority is not only to bemoan the state of education under the Tories. We need also to articulate a way back to a public education service which puts the learning needs of our children first and prioritises rethinking comprehensive education for the 21st century.
The primary purpose of the education of our children and young people has been transformed to realize profit for big business. This is now true in mainstream schools, pupil referral units and ‘special schools’ (where there is segregated education for disabled children), where the focus is not on the educational attainment of our young people but rather on the maximisation of surplus value from assets (children).
This is a well-rehearsed model, which has also been applied and, in some cases, is well advanced in youth justice, lookedafter children, pre-school, social care and many other previously publicly run and accountable services/settings.
The rapid expansion of academies was achieved by Michael Gove as education minister. His vision was of a marketbased system in which competing academy chains would run schools outside local authority control and accountability. Establishing these chains as charities was a cynical tactic for diverting huge public resources - represented by buildings, playing fields and land - into the private sector with few checks and balances. There are already examples of academies building luxury flats on playgrounds to maximise profit.
This policy has had disastrous consequences, as corruption is rife, with a few high-profile cases that have come to light being the tip of an iceberg. Checks and balances are minimal. A recent parliamentary inquiry in January 2019 found:
“There has been a succession of high-profile academy failures that have been costly to the taxpayer and damaging to children’s education.
“Some academy trusts have misused public money through related-party transactions and paying excessive salaries. “... governance at academy trusts needs to be stronger and the Department for Education’s oversight and intervention needs to be more rigorous.”
Academy expansion is being forced through by so-called ‘failing’ schools being required to join established academy chains. This is being achieved often in the teeth of strong opposition from parents, pupils, staff and governors of schools. The Public Accounts Committee had this to say (January 2019):
“Parents and local people have to fight to obtain even basic information about their children’s schools and academy trusts do not do enough to communicate and explain decisions that affect the schools they are responsible for and how they are spending public money.
“The accounts of individual academy trusts, and for the sector as a whole, are not yet as useful and accessible to users as they should be.”
However, academies are only one expression of the thrust of government schools policy. It rests more broadly on a series of principles that are rooted in reinforcing inequality and its own neo-liberal ideology. These include the establishment of ‘free schools’ which, with an Orwellian twist, are the opposite of what they suggest - privileging the better off and taking an unduly large slice of the cake to do so.
There are now about 700 of this variant of academies, increasingly set up not by parents and communities to offer “innovation, diversity and flexibility” as promised by Gove, but rather as further forays into the market by Multi Academy Trusts (MATs). They also dilute educational standards by employing higher numbers of unqualified teachers. In addition, while the government’s policy to create more grammar schools was defeated, the number of grammar school places is being driven higher, further reinforcing selective and unequal educational policy and resourcing.
But current education policy is beset with an even more fundamental malaise, which we have already seen damage other areas of social policy like social work and the probation service. It is the drive to privatise, liberate from democratic control and downgrade the workforce. This finds its expression in every classroom. It affects the relations between school student, teacher and guardian.
It has perhaps been best summed up by the American sociologist George F Ritzer in his elaboration of ‘The McDonaldization of Society’. He shows how, under right wing approaches to public policy and life, our worlds get converted into a giant fast food outlet.
‘Customers’ and workers are treated the same; as people who need to be controlled, have limited agency and are not concerned with any common good. Thus the principles of McDonaldization are writ large in our school system.
Efficiency - in terms of narrowing and simplifying the task.
Calculability - in terms of quantifying and regulating in increasingly crude ways the purpose of the enterprise - hence the role of a regulator OFSTED that ignores key realities to focus on frontline ‘performance’.
Predictability - to maintain a standardised, restricted and routinised service - a far cry from how we may have understood the complexities and interactions of children’s education in the past.
And finally, Control - standardising and limiting the human role, agency, initiative and discretion and even, wherever possible, introducing non-human technologies.
Where in all this we may wonder is the relationship between teacher and child - the relationship we know is critical for education to be at its best, especially for those with additional difficulties. And of course, after years of austerity, rising inequality, poverty, personal and social breakdown, we can expect there to be more such children and families.
We are witnessing in the classroom more and more mental distress, more bullying, more self harm and, even perhaps, more suicides. UK schools do not have a strong reputation for maximising equality or even equality of opportunity, with serious gender, ethnic and class differences. But where is the teacher, drowning in an ocean of control and bureaucracy, to find the opportunity, to respond to all these issues, especially as (s)he is put more and more at odds with her charges?
Where is love and kindness between human beings featured and allowed to have a proper place?
Our education system is setting our children on a road to nowhere.
Education was always the weakest policy of the post-war welfare state and too often the move to comprehensives in the 1960s was seen as a levelling down rather than levelling up. We have to return to first principles - to a revaluing of the holistic role of teachers, the rediscovery of education as a key element in the route to social coherence, inclusion and greater material and social equality.
Most of all the middle class phantasm of school and its testing, exams and uncritical praising of ‘meritocracy’ as the way to a well-rounded and happy adulthood must be replaced. In its place we must restore old, virtuous ideas that children’s heads are not there to be filled by us, but rather to be supported to be the site of their own personal inquiry, growth and selfrealisation in concert with their peers.
Here are some policy ideas to transform the education system using democratic and socialist principles:
» Disband academies and trusts and restore schools to the public realm and local authorities’ role in monitoring and maintaining standards.
» Restore teachers’ employment rights, terms and conditions to the public sector.
» Involve pupils, teachers and parents in democratising schools with inclusion, equality and learning being guiding principles.
» Transform the curriculum from the banking model to a broad-based critical inquiry education - teaching young people to think rather than the imposed narrow theoretical framework and the Tory obsession with learning and regurgitating facts.
» Abolish league tables and the continuous testing of pupils.
» Redistribution - change the funding formula for schools to one based on the deprivation index.
» Reprioritise the curriculum to include health/mental health, sport/fitness, social education, equalities, diversity, inclusion, the environment and citizen rights, alongside academic achievement.
» Abolish pupil referral units - preventing pupil exclusions by resourcing and making schools responsible for providing a rounded education for all young people.
» Implement a progressive realisation of inclusive education in line with article 24 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).
» Remove public schools’ charitable status and tax breaks, phasing them out over the next decade.
» Restore EMA (Education Maintenance Allowance) for further education students.
» Reverse the cuts to further education.
» Hold universities to account through funding formulae to ensure intakes are diverse and representative of the population.
Mark Harrison is director of Social Action Solutions, and Senior Research Fellow in Social Action at the University of Suffolk.
Peter Beresford is co-chair of Shaping Our Lives, the disabled people's and service users’ organisation and network, and Professor of Citizen Participation at the University of Essex.