They only do it to wind us up. Just as Jeremy Hunt knows full-well that junior doctors already work at weekends, George Osborne knows full-well that not a single school in the country closes at 3.30pm. In every town and village there exists a mighty army of indomitable teachers and teaching assistants who, rather than allow the government’s mindless testing regime to deprive children of art, music and sport, put aside their exhaustion to lead extra-curricular clubs, choirs and workshops after the final bell has gone. If you’ve ever worked in an office and you occasionally had to do big, important presentations that took hours to prepare, just imagine having to deliver five hours’ worth of those presentations every day to 30 people, knowing you could lose your job if you can’t prove they’ve all understood exactly what you were saying. Imagine if you then had to use your spare time to prepare more presentations as well as providing personalised written feedback to every participant. Then imagine conducting an orchestra or refereeing football matches for dozens of excited, demob-happy children at the end of it all. All I can say is that, if George Osborne is going to give a bit of money to a small minority of schools so they can fund their after-school clubs slightly more generously, then fine. It’s a start.
According to most newspapers and TV channels, that was the main education story of the day: a bit of extra money to fund the extra-curricular clubs that already exist in a small minority of schools. That and something about fizzy drinks. But there was one other thing…only a silly little thing, really; hardly worth mentioning. It’s just…there was that bit where Osborne announced he was, you know, privatising the entire state education system.
Yeah. Just to be clear, on Wednesday the Conservatives brought to an end the system of democratically-controlled, locally-accountable education they themselves introduced 114 years ago so that every child in the land could go to school rather than down the mines or up the chimneys. Between now and 2020 all schools, whether they like it or not, will be forced to become part of an “academy chain”- this means they are privately-controlled but publically-funded. In other words: you, the voter, now have no say over how schools are run but you still have to pay for them out of your taxes. The contracts through which schools (and the often very valuable land they are built on) are gifted to these organisations are shrouded in secrecy, the financial arrangements made within them are often kept from the public and several of these chains are run by well-known donors to the Conservative Party.
Why isn’t this bigger news? Well, partly it’s because most journalists find the subject of education fairly boring and rarely want to cover it in any depth. But it’s also because most of us who follow such matters closely have seen this looming on the horizon for some time and it therefore comes as no surprise. Indeed, most schools have already taken steps to protect themselves from being overtaken by a large, corporate behemoth, usually by forming trusts and clusters with other local schools that can be turned into less sinister and mysterious academy chains with relative ease.
What will this mean for our children? Well, if all schools are academies then, in some ways, no schools are academies. Academies have always been defined by the ways they differ from their local authority-controlled counterparts: they’re unconstrained by the national curriculum, they have to find their own HR and legal services and they have considerably more freedom over admissions. If these “distinctions” are applied to all schools, then what the government will actually be doing is abolishing the national curriculum (a bizarre new version of which was introduced by Michael Gove in 2014, creating a great deal of now seemingly pointless work on the part of many teachers), taking away legal and HR support from schools that still feel they need it and causing considerable confusion around the admissions process.
The curriculum is a moot point in the primary phase. Nowadays we live or die by our pupils’ KS2 assessment results and, sadly, it’s the content of those high-stakes tests that dictates what children learn between the ages of 5 and 11, rather than the largely tokenistic curriculum document. The removal of HR and legal services could be a problem for many smaller primary schools and I worry that their leadership teams will be forced to spend more time addressing those matters rather than addressing the needs of their pupils. What is really unclear, and a little scary, is what it will mean for admissions. The government’s mismanagement of a recent national crisis in school places has already created a chaotic and confused landscape. Many academies already appear to discriminate against lower-achieving pupils and their families, even though they’re not really supposed to, by claiming they are “unable to meet their needs.” What will happen if all the schools in an area, now granted the freedom to do so, start discriminating in the same way? What will happen to the children no one dares accept lest they bring down their test scores? My biggest fear is that local authorities will be hastily forced to set up large numbers of pupil referral units and special schools to educate all the children no one else will take, creating an underclass segregated by ability before they’ve even reached their fifth birthdays.
Perhaps with that very risk in mind, there is now some talk of handing control of admissions back to local authorities for all schools, which actually makes you wonder whether we’re just going full circle. After a few scandals, maybe legal services will get handed back, followed soon thereafter by financial accountability after a few academy directors, like Father Ted, are found to have unexplained sums of money “just resting in their accounts.” Before long, you wonder if we’ll just end up back where we started and the academies revolution will turn out just to be a really crap re-telling of “Animal Farm,” by the end of which the pigs have turned into men and half the farm has been sold to Sports Direct.
There’s no evidence that academies are any better or any worse than local authority schools in terms of educational outcomes so the big questions for most teachers I speak to are these: why take such a big gamble with our young people’s futures? What do the ministers taking these decisions stand to gain? Is it simply a question of ideology? And why all the secrecy? Whatever the explanation, it’s hard to believe the government really has children’s best interests at heart.
You can see why they were so keen to talk about after-school clubs and fizzy drinks instead.