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The Abolition of State Education

by Simon Kovar


The school at which I teach describes itself as “a very successful 11-18 girls’ community comprehensive school”. This brief, bold statement is a testament to progress: w
hen the school first opened in 1888, it did so in a world that remained largely hostile to the idea of educating girls. Learned professors at distinguished universities declared that seeking to cultivate female minds, certainly at secondary level, would result in infertility and insanity. The idea of the comprehensive community school, open to all, was still later in coming and represented a significant advance not only in furthering the life chances of those once excluded from educational opportunity but also for the ideal of democratic citizenship. In the early 1960s, 75% of students left school without any qualifications. That figure today is 3%. The comprehensive model is an outstanding and tragically unsung success story.

The nationalisation of the education system – notably the growing role of local education authorities in the 1902 and 1905 Education Acts, the Labour government’s Circular 10/[19]65 promoting the comprehensive system, the establishment of a national curriculum in 1988, and the introduction
of citizenship education in 2004 – were vital steps in this process toward greater equity and commonality. Today, these are the intrinsic components of my school’s sense of itself: an institution that is part of and democratically accountable to the community; that works together with others to promote the education and well-being of all its students; that is committed to equality – for girls and women in society and between girls of all backgrounds; and that teaches the values of democratic citizenship. These are so much more than passing pedagogic or ideological fads. They are the product of long social struggles, empirical experience, and arguments hard fought and won.  

Today that achievement is under attack, and at serious risk of reversal: my school is applying for Academy status. In taking this step, the head teacher says that she is faced with a conflict between pragmatism and principle. This is not entirely true, for schools have never quite practised what they preach in terms of participation; as Audrey Osler and Hugh Starkey note in their study of citizenship education, “In most democratic societies, schooling is recognised as a key means by which young people are educated for citizenship. Yet schools remain essentially authoritarian in their structures and organisation”. This was evident in the recent response to students leaving classes to join protests against university fees and the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA): protestors were treated as truants, and teachers who encouraged and supported them were censored or even disciplined. Similar issues arose in March 2003 when students left school to take part in anti-war protests. Then, as now, most schools ran scared of political activity, yet in so doing they failed to address issues of real concern and anxiety for their students, and laid bare the hypocrisy of a curriculum that professes education for democracy but prevents students from acting as democratic citizens. 

Secretary of State Michael Gove’s repeated claim that “the Head must be the captain of his ship” reveals little appetite for democratic structures in education. This is reflected in his Academies legislation: no meaningful consultation, significantly fewer constraints on head teachers, and appointed rather than elected governing bodies. In the case of my own school, parents, staff and pupils were given less than two weeks notice of the governing body’s intention to vote on Academy status and, when they voted, clear opposition from both staff and pupils was simply ignored. There is a democratic deficit at the very heart of the Government’s localism and school ‘autonomy’ agenda, not withstanding the rhetoric of choice.   

What of the argument about pragmatism? Schools are caught in a double bind. First, there is the accountability regime stemming from the reforms of the late 1980s: testing, league tables, reporting requirements, national curriculum assessment levels, target grades, performance management and OFSTED judgements, such that teachers are dealing with children not so much as individuals but rather as statistical constructs. Bertrand Russell wrote that true educationalists “regard a child as a gardener regards a young tree, as something with an intrinsic nature which will develop into an admirable form given proper soil and air and light”. Instead we treat children as bundles of abstract numbers and grades. None of this has anything whatsoever to do with education: in fact, every serious study has found this regime to be harmful to children and their education. Yet the statistical products of this system provide Gove with the stick to beat state schools in order to demand market reforms. This is notwithstanding the fact that the bureaucracy drowning teachers is not the product of local authority guided education but of precisely the attempt to transplant, from the late 1980s onwards, private sector-inspired management principles and accountability regimes into the public sector. It is worth remembering that, in contrast to the market reforms imposed on schools from the centre in the 1980s and 1990s, the drive to convert schools to comprehensives in the 1960s and 1970s came from parents and locally elected politicians. The comprehensive ideal remains hugely popular with parents and it is striking that the government has resisted calls to make conversion to academies dependent on parental ballots.

Anyone who claims that the comprehensive principle is not threatened by the Academies programme needs to look again. The ‘pragmatic’ case for conversion made by my school’s head teacher is based, explicitly, on the fear that if we remain the sole local authority guided school in the area we will be forced to accept students rejected by other schools. It is clear enough that the ethos of competition has already eroded our commitment to comprehensive education, as (one must assume) the architects of the policy intend. The consequences of an education marketplace are well documented. First, schools are forced to market themselves in order to compete with other schools for customers. Any attendee of a school open evening or reader of a school prospectus will know that this is already the norm. Second, the pressure to look good in results tables will inevitably reate pressures to, surreptitiously or otherwise, select.

Meanwhile – and this is the second half of the bind referred to above – schools face a drastic funding squeeze. Most face a real terms cut in funding, and capital funding has been cut by 60%. Barnet’s website trumpets a ‘glowing’ OFSTED report rating its Children’s Services as “excellent”. These same Children’s Services are set to lose 20% of their budget (some £10 million) with the virtual abolition of centrally provided services for the borough’s secondary schools. Meanwhile, Barnet Council’s cabinet has approved proposals to “cease all remaining activity to support young people through youth services” by 2014 with the result, according to Council committee papers, that “all [Council] activity focussed on the most vulnerable and disadvantaged young people will cease [leading] to higher number of young people not in education, employment and training, young offenders, teenage pregnancy etc.”. The document observes that these cuts will have knock-on consequences for third sector provision of youth services where these are supported by public funding. The New Right ideologues who run the borough are creating an ‘easy Jet’ model of service delivery in which public goods once defined as entitlements are now to be seen as ‘frills’ to be charged for, and in which public assets are to be leased or sold off. The architect of the model, former Barnet Council leader and now local MP Mike Freer, explained the new regime of consumer choice thus: “If they [residents] want the street cleaned less, but the pavement cleaned more often, that should be their choice”. The notion that residents might regard a service that cleans street and pavement as a public good rather than a ‘frill’ appears not to have occurred to these outriders of the Big Society. When the model is applied to schools the logic is that charges for services such as school libraries and computers may not be far off in the future. This is the inhospitable environment in which many schools face a ‘pragmatic’ tug towards Academy status. They worry that, ‘left behind’ with the local authority, they face only a tighter funding squeeze and an inability to hold their own in the new schools marketplace that is being created.

To succumb, however, would be to take part in a systematic attempt to de-legitimise state education. Michael Gove spoke in his Conservative Party Conference speech of “the vested interests who have been complicit in the failures of the past”. That would be the teachers. Max Hastings in the Daily Mail was more explicit: “be in no doubt about the significance of the Education Secretary’s plans: they amount to a declaration of war on the teaching establishment and the principles which have dominated state schools for more than 40 years”. Those would be the principles of comprehensive community schools, free pre-18 education and universality, that have delivered a fourfold increase in the proportion of children leaving school with qualifications and a sevenfold increase in the proportion enabled to go to university.     

Academies constitute the de-nationalisation of the state sector, and represent a longer term goal to casualise and de-unionise the school workforce. This latter goal is made explicit in a letter from Schools Minister Lord Hill to the head teachers of schools applying for Academy status, in which he warns them not to enter into agreements with their staff to retain national pay and conditions, and that “the existence of any such agreement will be a significant factor in the assessment the Secretary of State will make before deciding whether or not to enter into a Funding Agreement for an Academy”. Schools will become private enterprises with the result, not of less bureaucracy, but yet more dictatorial and top heavy management on the corporate model. None of these changes have anything whatsoever to do with improving experiences or facilities for children in the classroom. Schools will be operating in an increasingly deregulated education marketplace, competing with other schools for students and trading on test and exam performance. Note that the outcome of such a system cannot be a good local school for every child, since competition and markets necessarily presuppose a hierarchy with some (a minority) at the top and others (the majority) at the bottom. Meanwhile, the funding squeeze will bite. Ministers will conveniently be able to blame head teachers for the inevitable cuts. They will also, for the same reason, find it easier to cut funding in future years (as has been the experience of other arms-length education institutions such as universities and FE colleges). In the longer term this will have two consequences. The first will be a pressure on schools to seek other, private funding sources, opening the door to corporate influence and control and creeping privatisation. Academies in any case will be contracting more services from private companies; the trajectory of state education in the United States, where the development of Education Management Organisations (EMOs) is openly compared to the earlier emergence of Health Management Organisations (HMOs) as potentially lucrative investment opportunities, provides a sense of how such a system is likely to develop. Cash strapped schools in the US, including ‘partnership’ and ‘charter’ schools (similar to the Academies model), have ended up trading space, time and curriculum opportunities to corporations seeking captive markets for their advertising and products. Business Week reported from a school in Florida where McDonalds is a corporate sponsor that 10 year olds are learning “how to design a McDonalds restaurant, how a McDonald’s works, and how to apply and interview for a job at McDonald’s”. Combined with budget cuts, Academies in the UK open up similar opportunities for the subsidy and colonisation of public space by private corporations in one of the few spheres where young minds are still protected from such intrusions. The second, longer-term consequence will be pressure for the introduction of charges and fees, for exactly the same reason (and employing the same rationale) as university vice-chancellors use today. The lease of publicly owned assets (school land and buildings) to the new private Academy trusts is for an extraordinary period of time – 125 years – making these reforms irreversible for generations to come.

The goal of education, Bertrand Russell believed, is “to give a sense of the value of things other than domination” and “to help create wise citizens of a free community”. The goal of neo-liberal reforms is the precise opposite: schools exist to create obedient and subdued workers for the laissez-faire market economy. This is not a new insight – progressive educationalists have long drawn parallels between the systems of domination, control and hierarchy in schools and those of the workplace. No wonder school managers reacted the way they did to the student protests; the government admonishes ‘dependency’ on social support yet recoils in horror at the sight of young people turning into political agents and active citizens. As a teacher, I have been impressed at how young people have been self-galvanised into taking action, not simply in their own self-interest, but to protect future generations from the burdens of debt, and society from the decimation of public services. Their ethos in this regard is one of cooperation and solidarity, in direct contrast to the philosophy of competition and self-interested individualism that drives the market reform of education. School management cannot respond in the same way. Theirs is a world of rigid regulation, drilling and enforced ‘expectations’ of both teachers and pupils. Even so, there has always been something else at play in our schools, expressed by the philosophy of a community comprehensive in which the creation of citizens is the primary aim. The goals of Gove’s desired education system are purely utilitarian: to prepare students for the world of work and the imperatives of economic competitiveness. That is why the community comprehensive is under direct attack.

The coalition government is engaged in nothing less than a war on children, on young people and on education itself. This is not just about the litany of individual measures from cuts to child benefit and free school meals to the squeeze on school sport provision, the abolition of the EMA, the closure of local Children’s Centres, the 80% cut in the university teaching grant, and the doubling
of the cap on university tuition fees. It is about the prevailing orthodoxy, the underlying philosophy that has sought to de-legitimise state education since the 1980s. The political narrative that has tightened its grip on our law-making institutions is one that extols the virtues of consumer choice, market competition and efficiency. These concepts, borrowed from the world of private sector management and business, have colonised our notions of democracy, citizenship, public service and the public sphere. The values of these once distinct spheres are necessarily very different: the state model is built on the notion of equality, the private model assumes – as a matter of course – inequality. This is the defining battle of our times and it starts with our schools.

Simon Kovar is a Contributing Editor of The Liberal.

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