By Tom Unterrainer
The Department for Education and Skills has pulled off an astonishing act. They've managed to convince Nottingham City Local Education Authority (LEA) to effectively write itself out of responsibility for secondary education in the city - and all by promising "record" investment. The story of how this has happened and the impact it will have on teachers and students reads like farce turned into tragedy, but in fact it's little more than the bitter fruits of a very deliberate policy.
In 2004/2005 the government instructed LEAs to assess education provision and need with a view to bidding for a considerable amount of money in the form of the "Building Schools for the Future" scheme. BSF is just the latest in what have been massive injections of cash into education since 1997. Each locality made an initial set of proposals based on these assessments, put them out to "consultation" and then lodged them with the DfES. All teachers and students now have to do is sit and wait for our wonderful new schools to arrive. This is the story as Kelly, Blair and the Labour leaders on Nottingham City Council would tell it. The reality is very different.
From the start BSF has been little more than a mechanism to deliver the education agenda of central government to the country. Much of the "record" investment involved comes in the form of PFI and the new schools planned for Nottingham (and the majority of other places) are all City Academies. The impact these new academies will have on the city is significant because they aren't in effect "new" schools - they are all former comprehensives - and they will each have a larger capacity than the schools they replace.
So some comprehensives will be closed and reopened as academies and others closed to make way for academies. This will leave just four "comprehensive" schools in the city when before there were 13 (the others being selective by religion). Of the four others two are "specialist" schools which receive considerable amounts of PFI and one is a girls-only school which remains under threat of closure. This leaves just one "comprehensive" school in the city.
The NUT, parents groups and students have opposed the BSF scheme (which will also result in the closure of some primary schools) and continue to build the campaign against academies. Throughout the campaign the LEA have told us that the academy sponsors will be "respectable" and have asked "are we really supposed to turn down £30 million for Nottingham schools"? Our answer to them is that we're not interested in the respectability or otherwise of the sponsors (although it's much easier to campaign against religious fundamentalists or corporate pirates) and that some LEAs have rejected the City Academy scheme and still received the money from government. These points are key to understanding just how we’ve come to this situation and how we need to target our campaigns.
Although the council have appeared unaware of the eventual logic of their proposals and given hand-wringing excuses - "what are we supposed to do?" - the decision to go for academies is a very well thought out and executed move on their behalf. At stake are government plans to privatise the education system and Nottingham LEA has done a very good job of putting this into action. They care little about the idea of retaining local accountability, democracy and public service. On one level the disastrous history of the LEA means they're probably happy to have schools taken off their hands. Council leaders in Nottingham are quite happy to accept Blair's lead. Councils like Nottingham that have readily accepted the privatisations so far are likely to be just as keen to promote the proposals in the new White Paper on education whereby schools can simply ask to set up an independent (but privately sponsored) trust. Where academies paved the way, "Trust" schools will sweep up what's left behind.
At a time when health and education face significant privatisation schemes and where a variety of public services are confronted with major (and detrimental) restructuring it's all the more necessary that on a local and national scale, unions and campaigning bodies coordinate action. In Nottingham it will not be enough to simply force out one academy sponsor. We're faced with three academies at one time and a fairly intransient LEA - if we drive one out, they're sure to find another. Unions and campaigns must consider not just defensive actions but how we can best build our movement to make "victory" not simply an isolated concession but the end of these disastrous policies.