Through all my 60 years involved in or campaigning for education, I have never known a situation so dire or a prospect so bleak as that which faces education here today.
This is largely due to the actions and policies of an ideologically driven government more extreme than any previous administration, Margaret Thatcher’s included.
While its most extreme proposal, to impose academisation on all schools, has been the subject of what commentators describe as a “U-turn”, it remains to be seen how far the Government will retreat from its original proposals.
The latest proposal has been preceded by a series of actions and policies unworthy of any government claiming to want to provide quality education for all of the rising generation. The effect of those actions and policies continues and needs to be campaigned against, as well as what might have to be done in respect of imposed academisation. The following are examples of those actions and policies:
We have had hypocrisy from the Prime Minister and others over “social mobility” and “localism”, cynicism from the Chancellor of the Exchequer over funding and cuts, while the present Education Secretary, having connived at the wrecking of the former system for teacher education, has shown utter complacency over the serious and growing crisis in teacher recruitment whilst creating turmoil and misery in primary schools with her curriculum and assessment proposals, and consternation and anxiety in the secondary schools over GCSE “reform” and a new method of assessing school performance. She and her fellow Ministers have been economical with the truth when talking about the achievements of academies and their alleged autonomy, and been virtually silent about the outstanding achievements of most primary schools. Moreover, the youth service has virtually disappeared, hundreds of children’s centres and public libraries have been closed - all part of the wider educational scene.
Instead of seeking to secure the agreement and cooperation of those on whom they must rely to deliver education for all, throughout the years Ministers have regarded the teachers’ unions as the enemy, to be bashed and dismissed as a “BLOB”.
In the wake of all that, we now have a government which is intent on “rolling back the state” (and doing so under cover of “eliminating the deficit”), proposing to roll the state forward by nationalising all our schools, for that is what “imposed academisation” amounts to.
With centralisation of power in the hands of the Secretary of State (a degree of centralisation not practised in any other developed country) the Government would remove any serious responsibility for education from the democratically elected and accountable local authorities.
The unfolding of the extreme proposal was bizarre. It was announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and followed a week later by the Prime Minister declaring the Government’s intention to make all schools academies, and then a week later, with public attention focused on the local elections, the Education Secretary announced the Government’s changes in its plans.
She claimed that the opposition of Conservative back-benchers had influenced the decision, but the concern and opposition of a number of Conservative local education leaders will also have shaken her. She didn’t dwell on the uproar that had greeted the Government’s proposal in the profession and among parents and schools, but the opposition expressed in those quarters would undoubtedly have had an effect on Conservative MPs and education leaders.
The government had decided to impose academisation after failing to get the large majority of primary schools, and a substantial number of secondary schools, to opt for academy status. Ministers claimed this meant freeing schools from the bureaucrats in the Town Halls. The freedom they would not give is to let the schools choose whether to become academies.
And its proposal had been made in the face of the findings of the Education Select Committee, and other bodies, that there is no evidence that “academisation” of schools raises standards, and the disregarding of the declaration of Sir Michael Wilshaw that the majority of primary schools are good or outstanding.
No Manifesto Pledge
Whenever one of its legislative proposals is under attack, the Government claims that it is “fulfilling a Manifesto pledge”. But no matter how much it might have tried to persuade, cajole, coerce or bribe schools not opting for academy status, there was no Manifesto pledge to impose academisation on every school.
What to do?
Regrettably, we cannot expect an early change of government to one with different and better policies, because the present government will be there for the next four years. If the Government were to lose the EU referendum Mr. Cameron would almost certainly lose his job, and George Osborne would not replace him. The successor would go even farther to the right than Cameron, and would bring back selection urged on by rampant right wing Tory MPs. Only something truly catastrophic within the Tory Party would open up the possibility of a change of government before 2020.
There could be trouble ahead in the House of Lords on education if Labour and the Lib Dems and some independent peers were to oppose the Government, but they could only delay and not stop the Government’s plans. They must certainly be urged to do that and, of course, every effort should be made to support the Opposition in the Commons and to try to secure support from dissident Tory MPs.
So the main effort to stop the worst of the government’s intentions will have to come from a massive effort to mobilise opinion among the general public and especially with parents.
While the task will be formidable, I believe that recent events have shown that this government can be forced to change course in in the face of public outrage and opposition. We have seen that happening in recent times in respect of Tax Credits, the bedroom tax, disability payments and other benefits, and pension reform. And after Nicky Morgan had declared that there would be no “reverse gear” she now seems to have found one, though it is not yet clear how far the government will depart from its original intentions, though they clearly remain obsessed with academisation. It will be necessary therefore to continue and set up campaigning on that matter and to do the utmost to defend schools from what undoubtedly will be government pressure to academise.
There is already good work in many parts of the country and successful use of social media is being made. It is especially encouraging that the NUT and ATL are seeking to form a new education union which will enable its members to play an even more effective part in campaigning, and hopefully encourage the other teacher unions to join the campaigning.
Apart from these encouraging developments, big public meetings are being held, two petitions have been massively supported, and bodies like “Reclaiming Education” have been organising. Steps also need to be taken to bring in the school governors’ association and other groups such as the Heads’ Round Table.
Above all, everything possible should be done to involve parents in the combined effort. Teachers do not need to be told of the effects the Government’s actions are having and will have in schools and colleges, but they certainly need to tell parents what is happening, for they will be powerful allies. I do not think they will be in favour of strike action, but I believe there are many ways in which their support and participation can be gained, especially by making use of all forms of social media, and by well organised petitioning.
Listen To Wilshaw
We should also take note of and use recent statements by the Chief Inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw. He has said, among other things, that the Grammar Schools are “stuffed with the middle classes”, that most of our primary schools (the large majority of which are not academies) are good or outstanding, that we have the best generation of teachers we’ve ever had, that schools cannot be responsible for the failings of society, that there is little we have to learn from America, and that local politicians should be called on to help deal with failing schools. Moreover, he had the temerity to expose the failures of academy chains and Free Schools. He clearly intends to go out with a bang rather than a whimper, so watch his space . . .
We must, therefore, seek to secure the same sense of great public outrage on education and especially against the proposed nationalisation of schools, for that is a measure that would do nothing to address the serious problems in education I have referred to. It is essential in mobilising parental and public support that we show that education matters because it is fundamental to virtually all aspects of our lives, our society and our country, and to every citizen, young or old. If we can do that, we will succeed.