Education is under attack. Jen Wilkinson on why – and how – we have to fight back.
Forced academisation of schools has nothing to do with improving standards and everything to do with the Tories’ political agenda. The Tories subscribe to the GERM and they want to make us all sick. GERM stands for the ‘Global Education Reform Movement’. It was coined by the progressive Finnish Professor of Education, Dr Pasi Sahlberg, and describes the global neoliberal assault on education epitomised by politicians such as Michael Gove (and his dull echo Nicky Morgan) as well as multinationals such as Pearson. Typical features include a stress on competition within and between schools; weakened local accountability; externally monitored high-stakes testing; performance-related-pay; weakened contractual rights for staff; and greater corporate control of the running of schools. Essentially it is the desire to privatise education and run it for profit.
In the UK, New Labourites such as Andrew Adonis were in the vanguard, piloting the academies scheme that would apparently solve the problem of so-called ‘failing bog-standard comprehensives’. Their solution was to rip up teachers’ pay and conditions, change the headteacher and, perhaps most importantly, change the intake of students through covert selection and increased exclusion.
It is not necessary to rehearse the arguments against academies here – the evidence of falling standards, the lack of transparency and accountability, the impact on curriculum choice, the undermining of union organisation, and the increase in bureaucracy and accountability measures – because the case against academies has been strongly evidenced by groups such as the Anti-Academies Alliance and the Local Schools Network.
So why are the Tories forcing this through now?
Bad teachers! We haven’t gone along with their plans quickly enough. In 2012-13 academies accounted for around 10% of schools. Gove has since ‘super-charged’ the creation of academies and enabled ‘free schools’ to be set up – totalling around half of secondary schools today. Half is not enough though. Like an authoritarian parent with a naughty child, we were given the choice to do the ‘right’ thing, but the countdown has ended and force is the only option and it must be used now.
The Tories are early in their second term in office: this gives them time to deal with any political fallout and recover support ahead of the next national election. Under the cover of austerity, the Tories have been restructuring the welfare state. They have already picked the low lying fruit (they have cut the services which offered the least line of resistance). Ramping up austerity means going for some of the big guns like health and education.
Why we need to fight
This is a fight to stop the collapse of education. To win it we need to articulate a radically different vision of what education could be. Teacher morale is already at a low point. One survey suggests 87% of teachers are considering leaving the profession and anecdotal evidence from the staffroom seems to confirm that. Already teachers are drowning. Most of us entered the profession because we enjoy working with children and young people, because we care about education and want to play a role in improving life chances: most are considering leaving because the percentage of time spent doing this is shrinking.
Complete academisation – judged by even the Financial Times as a ‘dangerous experiment’ with the education system would threaten sick pay, maternity pay, notice periods, our salary structure, caps to contact hours and working days. None of these would be determined by national agreements, or even by headteachers, but by the unelected boards of multi-academy trusts.
So a fight in education is brewing and the Tories know this. Coupled with the anti-union legislation (that has raised the bar for strike action), academies further undermine our collective rights and our ability to collectively organise to fight for them. This suits the Tories: a weakened and divided profession strengthens their position. We need to fight back now, or hamper our ability to do so in the future.
How to fight
We need to go beyond the school gates and explain our concerns about the changes in education. We need to win people to a different vision of education. We need to build community support.
But this should not be counterposed to taking strike action. You wouldn’t have put money on the Junior Doctors taking mass action to defend their contracts, but their fight has propelled the issues at stake for the NHS into the media spotlight. Meaningful strike action can do the same for education.
The priority motion over forced academisation passed at NUT conference gives us the opportunity to seize the initiative of a Tory party at war with itself over the EU and personal ambition (as IDS’s disingenuous resignation illustrated). We now have a clear timetable – half a term to build the biggest possible ballot mandate for a day’s strike during the summer term to be followed up by more days in the autumn. Whether or not this is the level of escalation that will be required, this is a strategic discussion that can only be useful in the midst of throwing ourselves into the action currently in place. The Tories’ 2020 vision is not an accomplished fact.