The state education system in Britain is in disarray, facing an enormous recruitment and retention problem, the deepest cuts in funding since the 1970s and national assessment in chaos. Whilst Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan’s sackings were met with cheers from the staffroom, the damaging effects of their legacy live on in Britain’s schools.
Gove’s 2010 education white paper saw the largest upheaval since 1988: a new national curriculum supposedly based on ‘rigour’, the mass privatisation of the education system through academisation, new standardised testing at every key stage, and a new Ofsted inspection framework.
Alongside the reforms there is widespread discontent amongst practitioners. According to a survey conducted by the largest teaching union, the National Union of Teachers (NUT), 50% of teachers are considering leaving the profession. Since 2015, there has been a 15% rise in demand for science and maths teachers, and this month the NUT has held its first day of industrial action in two years.
The Conservatives’ education reforms are based on a pernicious free-market ideology which has seen the commodification of both the system and the pedagogy it produces.
Schools have traditionally been under local authority (LA) control, which meant everything from child protection policies to finances were monitored by local government; the LA was a safety net, holding schools to account as well as offering support. Academisation removes that layer of monitoring and accountability, allowing schools to set their own terms of employment (including maternity leave, sick pay and salaries), and manage their own finances and admissions policies.
The academies system also marketises education. By making it easy for wealthy individuals or multinational corporations to set up ‘academy trusts’ which can be used to create new schools, the aim is to create a surplus of places, with the underperforming schools being undersubscribed and forced to close down. If a struggling school is under LA control, it receives years of attention and support before being shut down, because schools are seen as an integral part of local communities. This is not the case with academies, whose trustees can quickly withdraw if their school falls under hard times.
However, even on its own terms, the Conservative administration is failing: school places are falling in real terms. A free-market, choice-driven ideology has produced an austerity-driven, underfunded system which actively removes choice from parents and children. The result is the complete erosion of teachers’ pay and conditions, undue influence from private interest (trustees can include banks and other multinationals) and the neoliberalisation of the education sector, since academies are also free to make profit.
The list of financial scandals in academies is seemingly endless. One example is an academy in central London whose grounds (transferred, as with all academies, from public ownership to the private academy trust,) were used to build a leisure centre and block of flats. Whilst profit from these private endeavours funded free boarding for students, the complex’s systems and resources were outsourced to a private company whose owner was also the headteacher. The Birmingham multi-academy trust Perry Beeches (including academies opened by both Gove and David Cameron) is to be dismantled after its headteacher paid himself a second salary of £160k over two years for services outsourced by the school, provided by a company of which he was the sole director.
When we put the financial misdemeanours aside and consider academies’ main purpose – to educate children – the picture becomes darker still. The government’s own education select committee has found there is “no convincing evidence of the impact of academy status on attainment in primary schools” and the Sutton Trust has found that “sponsored academies have lower inspection grades, are twice as likely to be below floor standard” and “the majority of chains under perform.”
More pernicious still are the changes to classroom practice. In the name of ‘raising standards’, learners and learning have been commodified. If you look over the shoulder of any teacher sat at a computer, they will not be planning interesting lessons or reading a new piece of pedagogical research, they will be staring at a spreadsheet used to track student progress. Teachers, especially those in senior positions, now talk about students as a small business owner would talk about their profit margin.
During lessons, students must display progress at every given moment, with ‘mini-plenaries’ every 10-15 minutes to check student progress. Progress trajectories and requirements do not account for the organic process of learning, which has peaks and troughs and is subject to external conditions far beyond the realm or influence of a classroom teacher.
When I put my ‘data’ into our school system, my screen turns into a collage of red, amber and green (‘RAG rated’), as do my enormous Excel spreadsheets, classifying student progress in one assessment framework against a target based on another, incompatible system. These are then drilled-down into percentages and used to hold teachers, schools and students to account. Research commissioned by the NUT has found this does nothing to raise standards.
In struggling, inner-city schools, this means middle and low attainers suffer: the system forces teachers to see their pupils not as individual learners but as entities with meaningless numbers floating about their heads. Weaker students are discouraged from studying certain subjects and headteachers are encouraged to spend thousands of pounds on exam entries for meaningless courses such as the European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL) – recently slated by Ofqual and Ofsted – to improve whole school progress measurements. These students are far more likely to receive no social, sexual or civic education – the focus being purely on examined subjects.
Left-wing teachers who joined the profession with ideas of social change, equality and a life of public service now find themselves with a real problem. Firstly, they are seeing their pay and conditions destroyed and both their physical and pedagogical working environment marketised. Secondly, they are torn between teaching students about the real world, outside of assessment criteria, and the exam factory drilling required to meet meaningless and inaccurate targets. And challenging the system could now close down your school, or worse still, hinder your students’ life chances.
Photo: Arron Hoare/Number 10/Flickr