Comment: Education policy is leaving children behind
By Chris Keates
By 2010, when the coalition government came into office, England had become one of the top 20 highest performing and fastest improving countries in education in the world and met the criteria to attend the first ever world education summit for the top performing nations. Countries like Sweden and the US, from which key education policies of the Coalition have been imported, did not even make the cut.
However, instead of building on this legacy, the education secretary embarked on what has become a hallmark of the coalition government's education policy: the obsessive focus on structural change.
Within only days of coming to office, an Academies Act was rushed through parliament using procedures normally reserved for matters of national emergency or public safety.
The academisation programme promoted by this Act bore no resemblance to the academies of the previous government, save for the name.
Gone was the focus on disadvantage and deprivation. Gone were many of the safeguards for pupils and parents, as the ideological drive to open up state education to a range of providers and introduce the free market free for all took hold.
Michael Gove first tried to bribe schools into becoming academies by promising extra funding, at the expense of other schools. When that failed to secure significant numbers, forced academies became the order of the day.
Academy evangelists, who used to be called civil servants, emerged from the Department for Education (DfE), stalking the country, cold-calling on schools, threatening heads and governing bodies and even removing them.
Resistance is punished with premature Ofsted inspections.
Parents who oppose the change are labelled as 'trots' and those who raise their voices against academisation dubbed 'the enemies of promise'.
When Gove leaves the DfE to visit schools, his destination is more often than not an academy. No speech on education is complete without high praise for an academy school or the 'inspirational' leader of one. Only free schools, academies by another name, seem able to distract him from his focus on this relative handful of schools to the exclusion of the 20,000 other schools.
Schools have been thrown into turmoil by this obsessive pursuit of structural change. Rather than focusing on teaching and learning, governors and headteachers engage in endless debates about whether they should jump before they are pushed into becoming an academy or seek the relatively safe haven of trust status to avoid conversion.
Upheaval, uncertainty and insecurity pervade the system and yet there is not one shred of evidence that structural change raises standards.
Academies perform no worse or better than other schools. There are some outstanding academies, but there are also outstanding community and foundation schools. Indeed, the majority of the highest performing state schools in the country are not academies, but community schools. International evidence, where similar structural change has been tried, paints the same picture.
But then is raising standards really at the heart of the academisation programme or is the driving force the irrational contempt that the coalition government has for all public services? This seems to drive the desire to hand over those services and previously public assets to privateers and marketeers to have the opportunity to turn a fast buck at the expense of the taxpayer.
Anyone can now run a school. There are no criteria applied to ensure that the values and ethos of public service, including fairness, equality and social justice, are maintained.
Safeguards for children, young people and parents have been stripped away as academies are no longer required to employ only qualified teachers.
The universal entitlement of children and young people to be taught by those who are recognised and rewarded as highly skilled professionals, and who have working conditions which enable them to work effectively to raise standards, has been swept aside. Academies are under no obligation to adhere to the national pay and conditions framework for teachers, which has a proven track record of recruiting and retaining good teachers.
Access of all children and young people to a broad and balanced curriculum, regardless of where they go to school, can no longer be guaranteed as academies set their own curriculum.
The fundamental principle of a public service, free at the point of use, is being seriously compromised as the coalition government enables academies to limit parents' ability to shop around for school uniform, to set whatever price they like for school meals and to levy charges for a wide range of provision which would previously have been a free entitlement under a national curriculum. Thus the door is wide open to access based on the ability to pay.
The education secretary has declared that he is not ideologically opposed to schools making a profit and the first academies to be able to operate in this way have now opened.
The academies themselves are not the concern. They are staffed by teachers and school leaders who are as dedicated and committed to securing the highest standards of education for children and young people as in any other school. The issue is what the academy programme represents.
The programme is the manifestation in the education service of the coalition government's irrational belief in market diversification and privatisation through the promotion of alternative providers, opening up public services to commercial activity and sponsorship.
Billions of pounds of public money are being handed over to a range of providers with few checks and balances to safeguard the public interest. At a time of economic crisis money is being poured in to a handful of academies and free schools while education budgets and specialist services on which schools rely are facing savage cuts.
This is a high risk experiment, not just with public money, but more importantly with the lives of children and young people. An ill conceived policy implemented in the NHS has an immediate negative impact in terms of quality of patient care or waiting lists. In education a flawed policy can take up to five years to manifest itself, but by then it is too late for the generation of young people who have passed through that system.
This is a government that professes to be very interested in using international evidence to justify its policy programme. However, it would, perhaps, do well to think about what this evidence says about the way in which high performing countries organise and deliver their education systems.
In Finland, for example, often lauded as a front runner in terms of its educational performance, it is clear that their successes have been secured because of their commitment to democratically accountable, collaborative arrangements for the delivery of education that have a fundamental aim of ensuring that all children have access to a good local school. It is little wonder that the coalition's academies obsession leaves teachers, school leaders and education policy makers cold.
The coalition might also look at evidence from Sweden and the United States, both of which have run costly and divisive experiments in giving schools the kind of supposed freedoms that academies and free schools enjoy in this country. In both these education systems, the outcome of these reforms has been to lower, not raise, standards of educational achievement, increase cost and inefficiency within the system and introduce greater inequity in terms of access to educational opportunities and educational outcomes.
Perhaps the time has come for the government to stop cherry picking the international evidence that suits its agenda and, instead, to take a long, hard and objective look at the risks its policies represent to the education system in this country and how other high performing systems have rejected the principles upon which the approach in England appears to be based.
Chris Keates is the general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers
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