The Lib Dems were bound to seek to put distance between themselves and their Tory coalition masters as the general election in May 2015 approaches. Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg has chosen to make the sharpest differentiation so far on Tory schools policy.
Tory education minister Michael Gove is the least popular minister in general opinion polls, and (according to the ConservativeHome website) by far the most popular among Tories.
He wants to turn schools into a sort of market system, rather as the Tories also want to turn health care into a market system. In Gove’s education market, the commodity offered is “education” as measured by exam scores based on testing stilted, stereotype, uncritical knowledge.
Gove also wants to use market mechanisms to force teachers into line with his market scheme, regulating their pay by performance as measured by students’ results in those stereotype tests.
He has pushed academies and free schools, so that schools become competitors in the market-place, rather than cooperating units within each local network of schools.
Academies are schools funded directly by central government, bypassing the elected local authority, which seek private sponsors, can go outside the general terms and conditions of teachers’ employment, and are obliged to follow the national curriculum only in maths, English, and science. They can set their own rules, within certain limits, for which students they admit.
Free schools are ultra-academies which have no obligation at all on the national curriculum, and (as Clegg complained), no obligation to hire qualified rather than unqualified teachers, yet are funded by the government.
As of the May 2010 general election, there were no state-funded free schools and 203 academies. As of October 2013, there are 174 free schools and 3,364 academies. Over half of England’s approximately 3,500 secondary schools are academies, and increasing numbers of the 17,000 primary schools are becoming academies. Over a quarter of all teachers in state-funded schools are in academies.
Academies and free schools get extra funding from government, theoretically to compensate for the services which community schools get from the local authorities which regulate them.
In the later years of the Blair-Brown government, the number of teachers in schools rose steadily, and the number of teaching assistants soared, from 66,000 to 179,000. Since 2010, numbers of teachers and teaching assistants have still risen, but more slowly, while student numbers have risen again (after decreasing slowly, year by year, up to 2010). Pay rises have been blocked.
Gove’s policy is based on using the grinder of market-type mechanisms to get more “education” (measured in his terms) out of fewer resources. As a result, about 10% of teachers quit the trade each year, and about half the people who complete teacher training are out of teaching within five years of their training.
Michael Wilshaw, head of the schools inspectorate Ofsted and a former flagship academy head teacher, sums it up: “If anyone says to you that ‘staff morale is at an all-time low’, you will know you are doing something right” (Times Educational Supplement, 2/12/11).
Back in 2008, a study of school systems across different countries found that “English primary schools remain uniquely preoccupied with testing...” And in secondary schools too, “what distinguishes assessment policy in England is the degree to which it is used as a tool to control what is taught and police how well it is taught”.
It means “teaching to the test”. It means cramming. It means stress. It means students labouring to get snippets of knowledge which they need for the exam, but which they can and indeed should forget as soon as the exam is over. In many subjects, it means that if students go on to university studies, or jobs which use knowledge from the subject, they pretty much have to start all over again to learn properly.
The crescendo in English schools of petty discipline, arbitrary uniform codes, and elaborate systems of punishment, is all part of the same system.
The Blair-Brown government started the academies programme, and gave a huge push to the focusing of schools on exam results and league tables.
Now Labour hints at schemes to bring back academies into local authority control, but no more than hints, and says that free schools would continue under a Labour government.
Back in 1965, John Holt wrote: “Most children in school fail... Many complete their schooling only because we have agreed to push them up through the grades and out of the schools, whether they know anything or not. Almost all fail to develop more than a tiny part of the tremendous capacity for learning, understanding, and creating with which they were born and of which they made full use during the first two or three years of their lives...
“They fail because they are afraid, bored, and confused. They are afraid, above all else, of failing... They are bored because the things they are given and told to do in school make such limited and narrow demands...”
In the 1960s and 70s, efforts were made, and some successes were registered, in changing schools to orient them more to learning than to demarcating failure. Gove is taking schools backwards at a gallop. More and more, schools are being converted into a machine for dividing students into (a few) successes and (many) failures. What even the successful learn is almost incidental.
Gove’s huge unpopularity shows the potential for building a coalition of teachers, other school workers, students, parents, and the labour movement to beat back these regressive education policies.