On the day of the June 1987 General Election journalist Peter Wilby, then education editor of the Independent, predicted that “The return of a Conservative government… will mean the break-up of the state education system which has existed since 1944”.
It has taken twenty-five years, but it looks as if Wilby will see his prediction come true.
Education Secretary Michael Gove’s war aim is now clear. In one electoral term he will fragment the education system and parcel it out amongst academy sponsors (and supporters of free schools) so that a future Labour government would baulk at restoring a unified state comprehensive system. Beyond this he hopes, in a Tory second term, to see the law changed to enable widespread schooling for profit.
Gove has built on the breach made in the state-maintained education service first by Kenneth Baker’s City Technology Colleges and then by New Labour’s City Academies policy.
By April last year, more than half of England’s 3,261 state secondary schools had become, or were about to become, new-style Tory Academies.
These schools are funded directly from Whitehall and run by businesses, “faith” groups, charities and the fee-paying sector. These organisations sponsor academies in their own interest, and do so competitively. In the process they wreck any prospect of locally-developed co-operation between schools, a hallmark of the previous Local Authority-based dispensation, and developed for the benefit of all children in a wide geographical area, irrespective of which school they attend.
Some academy pupils are now even denied the chance to attend an alternative educational establishment (such as an Further Education college on day-release) purely because that establishment is run by a rival sponsor.
Mounting evidence indicates that many academies shape their intake by covert selection, and continue to mould it through the overuse of exclusion.
Some academies institute draconian regimes to ensure compliance, locking down pupils and preventing teachers from working in self-directed ways. They use the pressure exerted by a national regime of floor-targets, testing and League Tables to justify a blinkered focus on exam-attainment (driven by relentless data-tracking which turns pupils into objects) rather than the provision of a broad and rounded educational experience for all.
Gove has forced the pace of “academisation”, and many opportunists have scrabbled to back him. Last month a report produced by the self-appointed “Academies Commission”, published by edu-business Pearson and the academy-sponsoring Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), had fulsome praise for the initiative.
Former Ofsted Chief Inspector Christine Gilbert, who chaired the Commission, looked forward to the complete academisation of the secondary school system before the next election.
The primary sector, where only 5% of schools are academies now, can, apparently, wait a little longer. At the launch of the report no dissent was tolerated from the floor, and none was forthcoming from a platform which featured, among others, the Director of the Institute of Education.
Academisation has been accompanied by a “war on teachers”. Just before Christmas Gove told the Times he had set his department on a “war footing”. Identifying his chief enemy as organised labour in schools, he has gone looking for trouble.
He abolished national pay scales, and in a further provocation urged Heads to challenge teachers taking part in the current “work to contract” action. He is boosting anti-union initiatives in schools, and pushing to change the law on industrial action there.
Gove’s media-savvy self-presentation hides a spectacular cynicism. He is contemptuous of the educability of working-class children and fawning towards those edu-businesses whose future profits he is committed to boosting. His emollient and urbane talk deflects attention from his coercive and destructive actions.
He discourses on the importance of a highly-qualified cadre of teachers, but ensures academies can hire (cheaper) staff lacking Qualified Teacher Status, and cancels funding for teachers trying to gain a Master’s level qualification.
He declares he will scrap modular exams post-16 to encourage “deep thinking”, but is about to inflict more rote-learning on children through his primary curriculum reforms.
He admits last summer’s mid-course shift of GCSE grade boundaries was unfair to pupils but does nothing to correct the injustice.
Loud in support of the right of parents to choose a school for their child, he imposes academisation on targeted schools regardless of parental opposition.
He traduces decades of achievement by state schools, especially comprehensives, and lies about what they do, claiming they “neglect the brightest”, “avoid competitive sport”, and are “happy with failure”. He delights in denigrating the work and commitment of the staff in such schools.
Academisation has cost £8.3 billion so far (New Statesman, 3 December 2012). While voting for cuts and austerity, Gove has overspent on his own programme by £1 billion. He knows whatever money he needs to smash one of the main pillars of the welfare state will be forthcoming.
Gove is helped by the utter lack of meaningful opposition from shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg.
Last month, Peter Wilby, writing this time in the Guardian, gave Twigg the chance to confirm a Labour government would rebuild a unified state education system and reverse the ruination Gove has caused. Twigg gave no such undertaking. In his mind, at least, Gove’s project is already irreversible and the war lost.
Parents, education workers, students, and socialists will take a more resolute line, aware that working-class interest cannot be served by an education-system devoid of democratic accountability, strait-jacketed by belief in fixed innate “ability”, in thrall to free-market liberalism, and content to replicate an unjust social order while siphoning public monies into private pockets.
After a quarter-century and more of retreat, appeasement and aiding the enemy, how much longer will it be until Labour again commits to a fully-comprehensive unified state-maintained education system fit to nurture the intellectual and emotional growth of all children together and every individual child?