George Osborne announced in his Budget on 16 March that all schools are to become “academies” (autonomous businesses directly funded by central government) by 2020. There will be no choice, no consultation and no alternative available for children, parents or local communities. It is the first time a major policy from one of the big government departments has been launched by the Chancellor rather than the minister responsible.
No explanation was given other than the fact that the Budget was committing £1.5bn to fund the transfer. The following day the Department for Education (DfE) published a White Paper with the forced-academisation plan, plus removal of the right of parents to elect representatives on governing bodies and abolition of Qualified Teacher Status. Although something like this was expected the scale and speed were surprising. The imposition of academy status on all schools was not in the Conservative election manifesto. Nor were the attacks on parent governors or QTS. All three ideas would have been near-impossible for Tory candidates to defend in an election. Right now a national public campaign can and should be built in defence of locally-run democratic education.
Some of the initial response to the government’s announcement showed the right spirit; marches and demonstrations to Department for Education buildings in London. Coventry, Newcastle and Nottingham. Unions should demand that Labour pledge to repeal academy-enabling legislation, guarantee no more academies from day one, and legislate to bring existing academies back into local democratic control. They should call for a commitment that a Labour government will negotiate a national contract with teacher unions which would apply in all state-funded schools.
Action can be organised now in some individual schools. In Small Heath in Birmingham and John Roan School in Greenwich industrial action by teachers resulted in the withdrawal of academy plans. The prospect of immediate national strike action as a direct response to the academy programme is, however, slim. Apart from the fact that an open anti-academy strike would be illegal, over 50% of secondary staff are already in academies. However, every school worker in every maintained and foundation school is now threatened with a transfer of their contracts to a new employer, with no guarantee on their terms and conditions beyond the limited safeguards provided by TUPE. Industrial action could be called in those non-academy schools to oppose to the transfer of employment to academies on the grounds that this is now the announced intention of the government. The unions could aim to ballot members in all non-academy schools at the same time to demand the withdrawal of the plans.
If that strategy is adopted, the National Union of Teachers should approach all of the other school-based unions and the TUC Public Service Liaison Group and argue for joint action. In the light of the serious defeats of the last six years, it will take some time to prepare members for such a significant industrial battle, but it can be done.
Straight away we need a big national political campaign. We need broadly-organised public meetings in every locality which unite parents, teachers, pupils, governors, support staff and local authorities who are prepared to defend themselves. Such meetings should aim to establish local defence campaigns, demand that local MPs oppose the plans in Parliament, and organise local demonstrations. The NUT and any willing allies should promote this approach and aim for a national demonstration for education in the summer term.
A petition demanding a referendum on the academy plans launched on the official Parliament website by Bridget Chapman, an activist in the LANAC network, gained over 60,000 signature within two days. By the time you read this article it will have garnered enough support to ensure a Parliamentary debate. The scope for resistance is huge. This resistance provides an opportunity to unify all teachers around action for a national contract for teachers which limits working hours, asserts firm caps on workload, controls class sizes, and ends performance pay.
All teachers, whether they work in academies or in the maintained sector, have an interest in and the right to take part in that broader campaign. Running these two campaigns together — the political fight to defend state education and the industrial fight for a national contract — gives us the possibility of turning the tide against the Tories.