Warwick Mansell, writing in the CPRT blog today, has posted an excellent position paper on the impact of academies, entitled The end of primary education as we know it. Readers of this blog will know that I have taken chiefly an ideological approach in the academies debate – it is the impact of localisation, local control, local democracy, local curriculum and local relevance that is at risk from academisation – whilst respecting the excellence and authority of Milton Keynes Council as a truly “local authority”. Perhaps if I was in a different authority, I would take a different stance. But I really don’t think so.
In sections on standards, on school autonomy and school freedom, Mansell concludes that all of these are threatened by academisation, as well as making a huge amount of new bureacracy for the DfE. The winners are the commercial enterprises that pose as academy chains, and which are largely inscrutable to the average teacher. How they get chosen to run a school is both undemocratic and opaque, as is pretty much everything to do with the appointment and work of Regional Schools Commissioners. The government do not say that teachers and schools are the “enemy within”, like Mrs T said of the miners, but everything they say and do reinforces the feeling that we are being manipulated and ideologically controlled by the Tory right.
It is the centralising force of this debate that is the most dangerous. The government simply wants to control us. In its debate with the EU, the UK government makes much of the principle of subsidiarity, that government should be as close to the people it affects as possible, and that a large organisation such as Brussels should not be responsible for determining what happens in local communities where there is an effective mechanism locally for determining it. In the area of education, by contrast, the government is abandoning the principle of subsidiarity in favour of a more rigorous means of control. Local authorities, funded locally and elected locally, are being stripped of schools so that schools can have “more freedom”. Warwick Mansell scoffs at this particular idea:
At the level of the individual school operating as one of several within a multi-academy trust (MAT), the very concept of school-centred autonomy may not exist as currently understood. Decision-making can be controlled by the MAT board, with the governors of each school having little or no power. If this as a trend continues and many or all schools enter into multi-academy trusts run in such a centralised way – and several leaders of large MATS have confirmed this is what happens in their organisations in the past year– it will be highly significant. Effectively it will bring to an end nearly 30 years of local management of schools, which, ironically, the Conservatives introduced in 1988. To put it another way, we will have replaced a system whereby heads and governing bodies were given some freedom to manage their own affairs, but subject to oversight and influence by a locally democratic body, with one where a central body which is not subject to local democracy can run a group of schools in a top-down manner.
The much touted autonomy given to academies is, likewise, a myth in most cases. Either the autonomies offered have been irrelevant or too dangerous to play with (teachers’ pay, for example) or they have been superseded by a centralising assessment expectation that trumps (sorry about that verb, must remember not to use it) all other considerations of curriculum and learning:
For example, although academies can depart from national curriculum arrangements, the existence of an assessment regime which focuses on the national curriculum and against which schools’ futures are decided severely limits their scope for manoeuvre. Indeed, professionals surveying the current highly prescriptive stipulations of primary English assessments might greet suggestions of professional teaching freedom anywhere within the state-funded sector with a hollow laugh.
Not laughing here, just weeping.
Diane Ravich’s blog continues to be vital in this debate, showing the direction that charter schools have taken (some good, the vast majority suspect or dangerous). If you don’t read it, it is worth checking into once a day to see what is going on across the pond, because if you want to know what politics and education looks like when there is money to be made from them, the USA is one huge petri dish of experimentation, which Diane describes and analyses with her own incisive wit and angle. She has some fairly acerbic comments on why UK teachers are deserting the profession too.
Why is this important? Well, apart from the obvious perspective on our political and educational futures, we need, vitally and urgently, to be well-informed and, more than that, well-principled. So many of us allow political events to sweep us by, and we accept it with a degree of inevitability that is rather like a badger in front of a Landrover on a dark night on a country lane.
If we are to fight, and I think that we must choose our battles carefully then fight them, then we have to have a clear idea of what we are fighting for, a grasp of why the ideology proposed by the government is weak, a clear argued defence in favour of local democracy, local control of schools and well-funded local communities, and above all, we need to lobby on behalf of children, of what we know and believe about them, trusting in our own expertise as to the conditions under which they and their families flourish, and bend all our efforts toward that.
Preparedness for the future means, above all, knowing what we believe and what the implications of that belief are in speech and action, not copying badgers…