Education: How to lose friends and alienate people

By Paul Atkin

There is an air of recklessness about this government. It’s as if they are aware of how thin and shallow their popular support is, so they are going for broke in the hope of carrying the day through sheer chutzpah. In the process they run the risk of pushing an already straining schools system beyond breaking point.

Outlines of a crisis not being addressed

The UK population is growing faster than any other major European country. There is a growing need for more school places, especially in London. Yet, local authorities have been forbidden to open new schools to meet need. The government has not planned for this since 2010 any more than they have planned for meeting the need for more teachers; insisting instead, with a touching faith that ‘the market’ will provide, that all new schools must be Academies or Free Schools.

Both these types of school are centrally funded by the Department for Education (DFE) with no local accountability. As a result, with no local knowledge and a selection criteria that could best be described as mysterious, DFE decision making has led to new schools being opened where there are already surplus places, while in other areas local authorities are having to make heroic efforts to meet need; by doubling the intake of some schools, pressing every available council owned building into educational use and even planning for split shifts (8 till 2; 2 till 8 or Monday to Wednesday; Thursday to Saturday) to make maximum use of existing buildings.

The market is not providing but the Conservatives are pressing on regardless. ‘There is no reverse gear’ as schools minister Nicky Morgan put it to a decidedly unimpressed NASUWT conference over the Easter weekend. With no reverse gear it seems that they will try to press on until they hit a brick wall or the wheels fall off.

Asset stripping

Their objective is laid bare in this revealingly opaque statement from Morgan in an interview with the Guardian.

‘At the end of the day local authorities are responsible for growth in their area. They don’t buy and sell businesses, they don’t build businesses, what they do is work to attract businesses to their area through a combination of things (sic). That’s exactly what local authorities, in terms of their role with both existing academies and bringing in new school providers, will be doing.’

Picking through the Minister’s clichéd and mangled grammar, it is clear that she sees schools not as an essential service for the whole of society but primarily as a business with the role of the local state as being simply to attract the chains that will run them through a combination of ’things’. It’s hardly surprising that even many long standing Conservative councillors with experience of running schools in their locality, and a certain amount of pride in a tradition of public service, think that the government has ‘gone bonkers’.

In the old days, the immense resources of the British Empire gave Conservative leaders world enough and time to pass permissive legislation to let reactionary change follow its own logic and bed slowly into society with a graceful illusion of Oakshottian inevitability. Today, the shrivelling economy produced by their economic strategy provides the pressure and the opportunity to rush into shotgun privatisations by gutting local authorities of the resources they need to carry out their functions (for every pound of support in 2010, LAs will be down to 30p by 2018). Time’s winged chariot is hurrying near and they are compelled to compulsion.  This fire sale of state assets, like selling the deckchairs on the Titanic, has the disadvantage of being too transparent for many people to stomach.

Nicky Morgan has stated that this is not an issue that comes up on doorsteps. With Labour unambiguously opposed, that should be seen as a challenge to make sure it does and punish the Conservatives in the May elections.

Spurious arguments

Changing all schools to Academies has nothing to do with improving standards. That debate has been resolved. There is no evidence that they do. Moreover, seven of the leading Academy chains have been hauled over the coals by OFSTED this year for having the same faults as the worst performing local authorities but with no accountability and a tendency to pay their chief executives ridiculously high salaries. The largest Academy chain, AET, has come in for a particular pasting, with half its schools considered ‘less than good’.

Nor has it got anything to do with ‘giving control to teachers’. This is the same lie that Andrew Lansley used of his train wreck of an NHS reform, that it was to ‘give control to your doctors’. That went well didn’t it? This kind of conversion is more about control of teachers. Look at this list compiled by NUT Deputy General Secretary Kevin Courtney and think about what this would mean for teachers and support staff in schools with a cost cutting business ethos.


The Government intends the total de-regulation of teacher (and support staff) terms and conditions.

This is a partial list of some of the matters that will no longer be decided at national or local authority level.

Instead they would be decided by academy trust chief executives and their boards.

– sick pay level
– sick pay rules
– length of school year
– length of directed hours
– length of school day
– structure of teacher working day
– non contact time/PPA (if any)
– class sizes
– structure of school holidays
– maternity, paternity, adoption pay above statutory minima
– starting salary
– salary structure
– all pay progression rules
– chief executive salaries
– probationary arrangements
– teacher qualifications
– redundancy pay (beyond stat minima)
– disciplinary processes
– grievance processes

The only item decided at national level would be pensions.’

This will be all stick and no carrot. Hitherto, schools converting to Academy status would get an increase in their funding (taken from other local schools). No longer. The first line of compulsion is that any school that fails its OFSTED will be converted. No consultation, no say for the governors, the teachers or the parents. Academies that fail will be transferred to a different Academy chain. Presumably if two neighbouring schools run by different chains fail at the same time they can just swap. It could get that farcical.
The second is that if a school is considered to be ‘coasting’ by the Regional Schools Commissioner, they will also be converted and allocated to a chain, also with no consultation or local input. Coasting will be defined arbitrarily by the Commissioners themselves but will lean heavily on Exam and SAT results, which is why the government has sharply raised the expected standard this year (see below).
There are eight Regional School Commissioners. Each of them covers a vast area. They are employees of the DFE with a job description to promote Academies and Free Schools.
A recent conversation with one of these worthies at a meeting of Heads in one London Borough went like this:
RSC: You will have the freedom to set your own curriculum without interference from the local authority.
Heads: The local authority doesn’t interfere now.
RSC: Ah… but you’ll be able to buy in your own services and you won’t be tied to the local authority ones.
Heads: We’re not tied in now. If we don’t want to buy in, we don’t. Most of us do because its a good service.
RSC: Ah… but if you for a Multi Academy Trust you will be able to save money by buying in bulk from suppliers.
Heads: We do that now through the local authority, which is a bigger group and it gives us bigger economies of scale.
RSC: Ah…

This is a summary, not verbatim. The word ‘ah’ stands for an empty pause, an inability to respond. It could equally be represented by a meme of tumbleweed blowing down an empty street.
With no viable carrots, what the government is hoping is that schools will jump out of fear before they are pushed and form Multi Academy Trusts on their own initiative. Proposals to reconfigure governing bodies so they are less tied to the community, with the removal of the need for parent governors, and more geared to a business model imply one governing body for a MAT. The prospect of school governors being paid opens up the prospect of a paid board of governors running a chain of schools as a business.

The majority fight back

The NUT called demonstrations across the country in the week before Easter. At the rally, Labour shadow Education Minister Lucy Powell pledged that opposing these measures would be the fight of this Parliament.

Over 135 000 signed this petition in less than a week, which will force a debate in Parliament. The NUT has written to all appropriate TUC affiliated unions for a joint campaign and agreed to ballot for strike action. NASUWT conference also voted to oppose the proposals. With the NUT and ATL set to merge within the next eighteen months this will give a further boost to the prospect of one big teachers union.

The NUT has a clear perspective of mobilising the majority who oppose these proposals, with the union membership launching community campaigns from their schools. Strike action will punctuate these campaigns but not be the be all and end all of them.

More recklessness

At the same time the government is compounding the existing creeping cut of 8 per cent of the overall education budget by 2020 with a proposed sharp shift in spending away from largely Labour voting urban areas to largely Conservative voting rural areas. The underfunding of rural areas reflects a historic pattern of under-spending by Conservative councils more concerned to keep the rates down than investing in local children.  The government describes their proposals as ‘fair funding’, but this is fair in the same way as flat tax is fair. Their redistribution would hit the most deprived areas the hardest. The most conservative estimate is that inner London would be hit with a 9 per cent cut, with a comparable impact on Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool. One extrapolation of projected figures from the F40 group is that for Hackney (the worst affected borough) to bring its budget into line it would have to sack a quarter of its teachers and all its Teaching Assistants.

Whatever the overall figure, this would mean significant disinvestment in education in the cities, with the inevitable knock on effects of everything from crime to how sophisticated the workforce is going to be. It is a recipe for national decline. A country that can’t afford to invest in its future citizens is on its way down and out and the Conservatives are leading it there; doubtless straightening their ties and singing the national anthem as they do so.

In London there is a very broad campaign opposing this, involving MPs, councillors, council officers, Heads, teachers, support staff, parents and students. At present it has been concentrating on pushing counter arguments in the government’s consultation, but teachers and TAs have already been out pushing hard copies of the petition in playgrounds and leaflets have been going up in local shops, so the word is getting out.

This too is an issue that should be shouted out loud and clear in the run up to the May elections. Turnout is traditionally low in local elections, but parents care very deeply about the prospects for their children and everyone opposed to these proposals should be making sure that everyone knows how hard hit their children’s schools will be if they go through.

Testing… testing

In order to provide a big crop of ‘coasting’ schools for rapid Academy conversion, they have also raised the expected levels for children to meet in test results by about a year for 7 and 11 year olds.  Last year’s expected level will be this year’s dismal fail. With so many children unlikely to meet a developmentally inappropriate target, the Regional School Commissioners will be spoilt for choice. This was too much even for the Head Teachers union who managed to negotiate a stay of execution for a year, with next year’s SATs being the ones that will count. Nevertheless, this year’s results will no doubt provide an initial short list.

So much emphasis has been put on testing in the English system that Year 6 pupils spend most of the year ‘preparing’ for SATs. Successive governments have put so much store by these test results that the tests themselves are starting to devour and supplant the broader curriculum, while Ministers have come to believe that raising the expected level of attainment in tests is a good substitute for raising children’s level of understanding.

This underpins the changes in the Primary curriculum, which make it more about lists of things to remember than skills to be developed or understandings explored. There is a tremendous tension in Primary schools at the moment between approaches that emphasise team work, shared thinking, valuing mistakes as learning opportunities, problem solving and grounding new learning in existing experience, with the emphasis within the ‘core’ Maths and English curriculum on totems of right wing thinking, like the stress put on learning tables by heart up to 12 X 12 (just in case we go back to Imperial measures) and an incredibly nit picking obsession with remembering terms for marginal points of grammar; like this gem from the latest (of many) clarifications about the English assessment for 11 year olds.

The national curriculum states that an exclamation is one of the four forms of sentences. An exclamation must be introduced by a phrase with ‘what’ or ‘how’ and should be followed by a subject + verb + any other elements. It is typically demarcated by an exclamation mark, for example:
What big teeth you have, Grandma!
How beautiful Cinderella looks in that dress!
The definition of an exclamation should not be confused with the uses of the exclamation mark for punctuation. The exclamation mark can be used in a variety of sentence forms and not just in exclamations.

Wow! What a relief it must be for every 11 year old in the country to have that one cleared up!

As a result, the exemplar test materials are not going down well. One Year 2 teacher in London, from a school with quite a middle class intake, commented ’We tried these out on the children and watched them crumble.’ Parents are beginning to pick up on this at the school gates as children come out frustrated and fed up.

As a result, this petition amassed 58 000 signatures and the NUT has voted for a ballot to boycott next year’s tests unless there are significant changes between now and then.