Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Academies: The Dangerous Schools

by James Wand

michael gove, secretary of state for education, education secretary, academies
Michael Gove, the UK's Secretary of State for Education
Image courtesy of The Times
After disappointing results for thousands of students in their GCSE exams this summer, those entering secondary schools for the first time this week will be going in with more trepidation than ever before. It’s hard not to feel that the class of 2012 have been hard done by as they bear the brunt of Michael Gove’s radical reforms. Radical reforms that have resulted in schools changing from local education authority lead establishments to academies and free schools, moving away from the safety net that is local government and towards the dangerous and volatile world that is the educational free-market.

Michael Gove isn’t a stupid man. Studying English at Oxford, he was president of the Oxford Union, writer for The Times and The Spectator, has a wealth of over £1 million and wrote a critical study of the Northern Ireland Peace process. He understands the full affects of radical changes. Radical changes like plans to destroy the Key Stage 4 Curriculum, radical changes like forcing academy status upon ‘failing’ and ‘underachieving’ schools and radical changes that involve a 25 year step back in the exam system.

But to see how far Mr Gove has to go, we need to assess the damage he has already done. Entering office in May 2010, Mr Gove has seen the appointment of a generally unpopular chair of Ofsted Sir Michael Wilshaw (yes, the same man who banned students from hugging), sparked outrage by suggesting Academies could employ staff with no teaching qualifications and has even been mentioned in rumours regarding the withdrawal of all non-statutory payments to schools by Oxfordshire County Council to force schools to become academies. And to him, this is just breakfast. Overseeing the largest expansion of free schools and academies- it has emerged that the majority (50.3% according to BBC/DofE) of schools have broken the link with their local authority.

Academies are dangerous organizations. By withdrawing themselves from Local Education Authority (LEA) control, a process that is designed to give them “fiscal and education independence” according to the Department for Education, they are stepping in to the unknown. Giving schools financial independence is wrong. Yes, schools know where the money should be directed, but do not have the oversight and the ability to foreshadow like local authorities do. A large scale local authority can address building concerns more accurately when it can see the bigger picture. It can pump money in to where it’s really needed and ensure all schools reach a certain quality. By giving schools financial independence the chances of modernisation are likely to fall and problems rise. With a significantly enlarged budget it becomes too easy to forget about the services the local authority previously provided and spend money too quickly. This would leave many schools in a bad situation if ever a rainy day comes. As before they could turn to their Local Authority who would lift the problems out of the schools hands and address any financial problems quickly by looking at the wider budget, each school would be left alone. Furthermore each school now lies at the hand of the private sector. From cleaning costs to schools buses and maintenance, where previously the local authority would have had ultimate control of all of these services and would have worked in the best interest of the school, now schools can contract out work. Yes, in the short term this may be cheaper but let’s look at the bigger picture – private companies only care about profit not people. This is a free market that is ultimately going to scare off any improvements to schools.

The pain certainly doesn’t end there. Mr Gove has given the go ahead for academies to employ staff (including teachers) who have “no teaching qualifications”. A cheap alternative these ‘teachers’ will drive down results and not raise them – as Michael Gove has very much hoped for. It just indicates how times change. It was only 2 years ago David Cameron was suggesting all teachers should have a 1st or a 2:1 degree and all applicants with a 2:2 or 3rd would be rejected; now it a profession that someone with no knowledge on the curriculum or children can get into. With the power to sack and amend the contracts of teachers, the workforce at academies becomes undervalued. Unions have a point when they point out the “disposable attitude” academies are now adopting. The new academies seem fraught on keeping costs down- at the costs of standards. At these time when we here that standards in schools are falling, shouldn’t we ensure that pupils get the best and the cream of the crop, not the bottom of the barrel.

Academies symbolise how Gove ideology is seeping into our education system. Their management schemes indicate a switch from a board of governors to companies with vetted financial interests having real control to the application process and the independence of schools to pick and choose pupils. Agreed, it is unlikely Academies will suddenly reject all applications from a certain area but what is there to stop them? Unfair, unequal and bias – the academy scheme only goes to remove the hope and dim the light on the dreams on many thousands of pupils. What does any of this matter, surely the content is the same from Academy to Academy, school to school? Well not exactly. Anyone who watched Faith School Menace with Richard Dawkins will have noted the fact that many religious based academies are beginning to swerve away even from the basic curriculum they have to teach on things like Biology and the Sciences to Religious Studies. If it wasn’t bad enough that Academies don’t have to stick to the curriculum non-Academy schools have to, it seems that they can’t even do that well.

What is even more worrying is that his plans to cripple young people don’t end there. With his announcements to scrap GCSE’s and replace them with old style O-Levels, I wonder whether we should start playing ABBA and David Bowie again and go back to 1980. I do not think exams have got any easier. It is far easier, though, for a generation who have passed their exams, gained their qualifications and received their university education (I suspect at a well reduced price) to criticise the system as it stands. GCSE’s create a consistency around vocational and academic studies and allow students to ‘play’ to the best of their abilities. Dividing people up in to separate groups at an early age doesn’t solve a problem of rising standards. It is only keeping a close check on exam questions and syllabus that mean we will help us conquer our own futures.

In an new era when we are likely to need to train again to keep up the moving times, we must ensure that we have high standards in the basic of areas. We need assertive, thoughtful leadership from someone who realises now more than ever the importance of filling an empty mind with an open, enquiring one.

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  1. "Moving away from the safety net that is local government and towards the dangerous and volatile world that is the educational free-market.” You mean the free-market that provides us with some of the best schools in the country?

  2. I do not believe the Free Market provides us with the best schools. Academies, in their current form, did not out perform their Secondary School counterparts in the majority of Local Authorities last year. The pick and choose attitude of the Free market exacerbates inequality and only leaves the poor poorer and a greater burden on the shoulders of government in the long run. In Sweden social inequalities have widened since the introduction of almost identical free-schools that the Conservatives have adopted here.

  3. Just because you think that the free market leaves people in such a state of inequality (an opinion which I do not share), does not mean that they are not better that state-run schools. Also, I do believe that some more time should be given to the academy program to see if it works out. I am not completely familiar with it, only just moving to London in the past year. If one of your socialist programs were put in place (sorry if you are not a socialist, I just assumed) how long would you say it was necessary to observe the results that were yielded? I would wager that you would allow more time for one of these programs that you are for the de-regulation for the monopoly the government has on schools at the moment.

  4. Yes it does. If there is a state of inequality and an organization has the power to choose freely who uses it then, both in theory and in plan, it will pick the best or the most suitable for its establishment. I don't think any more time needs to be given to the academy program. Rewriting contracts and spending money awarding contracts that schools need to private companies is dangerous and only pushes schools closer to greater private influence. A perfectly good system yielding some of the best results in the world (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-20498356) has been replaced by one that is dangerous and has little or no control mechanisms. To me, on primary resources like Health and Education government doesn't have a monopoly but a duty to deliver the best results which, I believe, can only be yielded by keeping control at government level


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