02 April 2016
Roll out of 'academisation' of state schools is anti-local councils - or just plain barmy
No evidence to suggest that current system has been failing
The Conservatives' insistence that all state schools should become "academies" - self-governing institutions funded directly by central Government - has only one rational explanation. Otherwise it is plain barmy. Ministers must have decided that local councils are the real obstacles to good education. So take them out of the equation and all will be well.
For more than a century local authorities, answerable to locally-elected councillors, have been the main providers of primary and secondary education for children below and above 11. The 1944 Education Act finally brought church schools, Catholic and Church of England, which together make up roughly a third of the total, into the same system, making it more or less universal.
There is one fundamental flaw in the theory that local authorities are holding back good schools. There is no evidence for it. Teachers who mark pupils' maths homework sometimes write, "show your working" at the bottom of the page, meaning they cannot tell whether the answer, right or wrong, is sheer guesswork unless they know how the pupil arrived at it. If wrong, they cannot see how the mistake arose and therefore cannot correct it. The problem with the "academy revolution" the Government described in its recent White Paper is that it has given what it thinks is the answer, but hasn't said how it arrived at it.
In fact the total absence of evidence that "academisation" works suggests that there is no working out to reveal. This is just guesswork. And the odds are it's plain wrong. Numerous existing academies, already outside the local authority system, have been failing to provide anything like an adequate education. The Government's hope appears to be that schools that become academies, as all of them must be by 2020, will link themselves into groups. These "chains" of academies, says the theory, will naturally tend to foster good practice and drive out bad, the best inspiring the worst to do better.
But surely the opposite is just as likely, the bad dragging down the good. There is no sign of any mechanism that would prevent the ratchet running the wrong way. Parental pressure? But the Government is proposing to abolish the role of parent governors in school governance once they become academies. And if the influence of successful neighbouring schools is so valuable to others who are not so good, why is this effect not apparent under the present arrangement? Schools under a local education authority are virtually in a chain already. Over the decades they have perfected their own combination of competition and cooperation, for the greater good. Where gaps in provision appear, for instance over children with special needs or severe behavioural problems, local authorities have stepped in to provide solutions covering several school catchment areas, or for whole boroughs.
The Government's view is that local authorities "interfere" to prevent what head teachers and their staff would otherwise want to do. But again, where is the evidence? Where the protests at this alleged interference from heads themselves? Or from classroom teachers? All the teachers' unions are utterly against these proposals. And among those most indignant about the proposed changes are Conservative-led local education authorities, who are mightily offended at being told they are part of the problem. Many of them run excellent schools. They ask the pertinent question - if it ain't broke, why fix it?
The proposed removal of parent governors is a give-away of what the Government really thinks. The model it has in mind for academies is the public limited company, whose directors bring various technical skills to the PLC boardroom. You don't put customers in charge of production, so get rid of parent governors. The boards who will run academies will be made up mainly of local businessmen or similar trades such as accountants. The emphasis, obviously, will be on efficiency and results (in effect, the profits) - but only those that can be measured. The broader purposes of education, such as character development or culture transmission, will be below the bean-counters' radar. To the Tory mind, it seems, the model citizen we all must emulate, the person our children must be educated to become, is the successful local entrepreneur. A nation of small shopkeepers. Small shopkeepers are fine people, but few of them would want to be regarded as role models for the whole society.
An education system is a cultural vehicle that transmits the values and traditions of one generation to the next - it is, in its essentials, conservative. You don't start again from Year Zero; you draw on past experience of those who have gone before, which you modify as necessary. How to teach is a skill developed over generations. What is happening here is the commodification and marketisation of that skill, as something to be bought and sold. This is the explanation for the otherwise baffling fact that certain academy heads have been awarded salaries way above that paid to the Prime Minister.
Labour's leader Jeremy Corbyn was surely missing the point when he told the National Union of Teachers that what was afoot here was "asset stripping" of educational facilities by business, looking to make a profit out of them. It is worse than that. This is values-stripping - educational reductionism. For a Conservative Government, it is utterly unconservative. And it is likely to be gravely harmful to the common good.
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