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Issue #1548      23 May 2012

Privatising schools is madness

Education policy in England and Wales descends deeper into the abyss with almost every passing day. The chief inspector of schools has said: “If anyone says to you that ‘staff morale is at an all-time low’, you know you are doing something right”. The bullying once found only in the playground is now being actively promoted as the key attribute of a successful head teacher.

The education secretary Michael Gove, meanwhile, laments the dominance of privately educated people in key professions but the conclusion he draws from this is that teachers in state schools are not good enough. With analytical skills like that, you have to wonder about the deficiencies in his own education.

Let us for a few months swap state teachers – who cope with large class sizes, huge ranges of ability and inadequate infrastructure – with private school teachers in their privileged enclaves and then see who is considered “good enough”.

The program to convert as many successful schools as possible into academies is being rolled out all over England and Wales – though without any apparent forethought.

The local comprehensive school here in East Oxford – the school my children went to – is currently debating whether to become an academy. Almost everybody involved in the process, including the governing body, is against the government’s academy program on principle. There is a burgeoning, articulate and highly effective campaign among parents opposing the change in status. Yet many governors seem to be arguing that there is no alternative but to go with the tide.

The idea that this is privatisation in all but name is no longer just a charge by leftwing critics but is being openly embraced. Schools are being overtly told to behave as and model themselves on businesses rather than public institutions.

They will be able to set their own pay scales and alter the terms and conditions of staff – which effectively sounds the death knell for collective national protection of those employees by trade unions. The announcement that Swindon’s flagship academy is seeking to shed 30 classroom assistants and six other support staff along with an unspecified number of teaching posts should be a salutary warning.

Academies will also be able to control their own admissions. In a society where schools are judged by their exam results, any individual school has a vested interest in refusing admission to students likely to be problematic in terms of behaviour or low in attainment.

In the absence of oversight by a local education authority, who will stand up for the most disadvantaged children if individual academies put their own “business interests” before their social responsibility?

It is an experiment driven by ideology and bearing no relation to common sense. As with the privatisation of the National Health Service, we are walking into a wilderness without realising it – and it will, as ever, be the poorest and most vulnerable who will wind up stranded.

New Internationalist  

Next article – Bradley Manning, not gay marriage, is the issue

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