Education notes: The education profiteers

The plan and the unplanned
Michael Binyon OBE, Master of the Royal Livery Company of Leathersellers in the City of London, has many interests in defence of the British establishment, as diplomat, spy watcher, Times and Times Educational Supplement columnist. In 1984 he published a commentary, Life in Russia, in which he attacked what he called ‘the tyranny of the plan’. But events at Lewisham Bridge School tell us all we need to know about the chaos of the unplanned. Leathersellers is owner of the Lewisham school site, a small primary in the heart of the deprived south London borough. Both Leathersellers and Lewisham Council want to demolish the primary school. They have ambitions for the future of the site, namely a new all-through 3-16 years Foundation school. The existing Special Needs Unit and Travellers’ Education Service will have no place in the scheme.

Foundation schools are not run by the local authority. They are public/private schools where the governors are selected by the Foundation, which decides admissions, employs staff and owns the land and building. The parents, children, teachers and community want Lewisham Bridge School to be kept as it is. After campaigning for over a year against threatened closure, they had some good luck. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport designated the school building a Grade II listed status, which means that it cannot be knocked down. Labour Mayor of Lewisham, Sir Steve Bullock, was furious at this threat to his chance of handing over a brand new Foundation school to Leathersellers by ‘an undisclosed civil servant with no regard for local need’. On 23 April parents seized the opportunity and occupied the roof of the school in opposition to the Council’s proposed closure of the school and bussing of the children to a temporary centre, one-and-a-half miles away. Meanwhile the Council is appealing against the Department’s listing and preparing for demolition. Parents led a demonstration in Lewisham on 9 May. The community’s fight for the survival of its local school continues, but will have to be determined to overcome Labour’s commitment to privatised education.

Illegally large classes
Grabbing school sites and discarding small schools has created havoc in the primary school sector. Schools in England are being closed at the rate of 100 a year, leading to a growing shortage of school places and increased overcrowding. Britain’s primary school classes are the fourth largest of the 30 most developed Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, with only Japan, Korea and Turkey having larger classes. The 1997 Labour government outlawed infant classes of over 30, but in the last 12 months alone, the number of young children in illegally large infant classes increased by 50%. Schools in the private sector have 13 fewer infant pupils per class than the state sector. In primary school the average class size is 26.2, but averages are deceptive. Over 10,000 children are crammed into classrooms and denied the space and teaching time they need.

Business is failing business schools
At the other end of the education scale university students who are told that they are the brightest and the best enrol not for science, medicine or the humanities but for the Master in Business Administration (MBA). Management studies at Harvard, London, Dubai, etc have grown and in many universities are often the richest and largest departments. As might be expected, business schools are suffering in the economic crisis. Amazingly, this is not because they have been exposed as a costly waste of time and money. No MBA course has (yet) been accused of hyping up ‘marketing communication and competitive intelligence’ as phoney baloney. None of the ‘experts’ have been called upon to explain why their economic modelling and future profitability strategies failed to predict, let alone explain, the credit crunch. No, it is the income stream of company spending on programmes for their executives that is declining. About 60% of organisations have reduced training and development budgets and have stopped buying into business school ‘expertise’. The perks and freebies of the corporate lifestyle, travelling to residential international conferences to participate in ‘new visions of excellence’, are being cut. In the words of Don Skull, Director of the London Business School, ‘Google is closer to the future of business education than business education is to the future of business education.’

London Metropolitan University
There is trouble also, not amidst Oxford’s dreaming spires or Cambridge’s pleasant meadows, but at the London Metropolitan University (LMU) sites on the Holloway Road and Commercial Street in London. Research from 2006 shows that over 60% of LMU students are drawn from ethnic minorities and that the university has more black Caribbean students than the 20 leading universities of the Russell Group combined (Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College, Kings College, the LSE, and Warwick etc). 97% of LMU students come from state schools and colleges and 3% are from lower socio-economic groups. With 3,000 students, LMU is London’s biggest university. Now the higher education funding body HEFCE is cutting £15 million from LMU’s budget and intends to claw back £36.5 million of past funding, alleging that the university misreported student completion rates. The university management intend to cut 700-800 jobs, a quarter of the institution’s workforce. Courses and student places will be drastically reduced. Lecturers held a one-day strike on 7 May and students have occupied buildings. The University and College Union (UCU) have demanded that LMU’s books be opened, no redundancies and no victimisation.

Higher Education Minister David Lammy has refused an independent inquiry into LMU’s finances. The Vice Chancellor, Brian Roper, resigned in April but will be paid until the end of the year. LMU management previously attempted to derecognise the union. It is the management that should be held to account and sacked, not protected by the minister. A march on Saturday 23 May saw the small representation and many banners of large unions, the GMB, NUT, UCU, UNITE and the PCS. As Mark Serwotka of PCS said at the end ‘the struggle should have started sooner, but it will have to start now’.

Chris Woodhead has a laugh
A true opportunist looking for fame and fortune could do worse than study the life and times of Chris Woodhead. From posing as an ultra progressive teacher, teacher trainer and LEA administrator, he rapidly escalated into an educational traditionalist under Thatcher. Writing for a conservative newspaper and becoming a consultant to a Conservative PR firm, he stamped his authoritarian views on the Ofsted inspectorate regime under the heading of accountability and ‘raising standards’. Invited by the 1997 Labour government to continue as head of Ofsted with a massive pay rise, he imposed an increasingly rigid and centralised inspectorate on schools. His dictatorial management style was evident in his refusal to publish the report behind a contentious ruling that put Islington Green School in London into ‘special measures’. Woodhead was a particular target of that incisive commentator, the late Ted Wragg, to whom he was ‘Sid Turniptop’.

After leaving the state sector Woodhead was appointed Professor of Education at Britain’s only private university, the University of Buckinghamshire. In 200 he became Chair of Cognita, a business that owns and runs private schools for profit. An opinionated shock-jock to the end, he announced in May that he has motor-neurone disease, but will not be speaking to ‘any bearded social workers’ about his future. Not so amusing, however, are his conclusions that the key to success in education is in the inheritance of intelligence – ‘that the genes are likely to be better if your parents are teachers, academics, lawyers, whatever’. Woodhead’s recourse to genetic determination to rationalise the failure of the state education system in which he played a central role, is disgusting. He practically suggests that there is no point in educating the working class. What is scary is that all the other Turniptops are still out there making money and careers out of the test-and-fail regime that is justified under the heading of accountability.

Accountability and the real world
But what is accountability exactly? The head of one south London school is worried that an Ofsted judgment on attendance figures may be distorted because only a third of pupils attended on one snowy February day. Had the school remained closed like many others there would be no problem and attendance targets would be met. Other headteachers are not so fragile. Sir Alan Davis, head of Copland Community School in Wembley, north London, on a wage of £150,000, has received £130,000 in bonuses over the last two years. Allegations are now being investigated that over £1 million has been liberally distributed to the head’s favoured staff and a number of his relatives employed at the school. Three teacher union reps were suspended by the school management following a staff vote of no confidence in the headteacher. Parents and pupils have been demonstrating in support of the teachers’ reinstatement, whose suspension is particularly vindictive because their classes have public exams in a few weeks.

‘Accountability’ has been the weapon of bullies under Labour, Woodhead and Ofsted. At last we are beginning to see it turned against those who have enriched themselves at the expense of the working class.

Susan Davidson and Trevor Rayne

FRFI 209 June / July 2009


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