Not ‘dream’ schools but nightmares

In the Channel 4’s series Jamie Oliver’s Dream School, a group of hand-picked young people are seen to be acting badly in front of well-known personalities who provide a one-off lesson. It is an insult to the pupils, who put on their worst Big Brother behaviour and play up to the cameras. It is also an insult to the real problems of a state education system that is facing unprecedented budget cuts to an already unjust and divisive school and further education system. Here are some of the real-life nightmares facing schools.

Budget cuts

In the coming financial year schools are facing the prospect of cutting up to a fifth of their staff. One way out of making redundancies now is the promise of a pot of government cash that will protect budgets if schools turn into Academies. This is a decision for the Head alone – there is no meaningful consultation. A directive in a December 2010 letter from Lord Hill, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools, to heads of schools that have applied for conversion to Academy status, makes it clear that once interested parties have been informed, opposition from parents or unions is pointless: ‘There is no need for schools to agree to a request from NASUWT [teaching union] to halt or amend the conversion process’. Staff at the school will be automatically transferred from Local Education Authority employment to the Academy Trust. Current staff will be granted ‘like for like’ employment protection (TUPE) for the duration. Any ballots ‘on the potential adverse impact on job security, pay and conditions of service and union recognition’ can be ignored. Hill says that ‘one of the key freedoms of Academy status is to set pay and conditions’. So much for collective bargaining and parental choice. In a time of austerity, bribery is the chosen tool of government.

Abuse of public funds

Academies, originally designed by ‘faith-friendly’ Blair and ‘business-friendly’ Brown, are ‘given’ to companies, religious groups, banks and big institutions such as universities which determine the curriculum, teachers’ wages and conditions and overall ‘ethos’ (a useful word for propaganda). At first, £2 million or so had to be paid for a school, its buildings, playgrounds and infrastructure. Today, however, there is a shortage of Academy sponsors, so most Academies are financed directly from Whitehall as ‘state-run independent’ schools. The National Audit Office (NAO) has recently warned that the ‘long-term financial health of Academies is unstable’ because many sponsors saw their credit status plunge in the financial crisis. NAO also notes that handing over so much public money to private, unaccountable management is ‘risky’, meaning subject to inefficiency, waste and corrupt practices.

Free schools paid for out of lunch money

The ‘free’ schools that are being set up by parents and others will be able to dig into a pot of money that was originally intended to pay for free school meals to an additional half a million children who live in poverty. Currently only the children of parents on unemployment benefit are entitled to a free meal, despite the fact that 40% of people living in poverty are actually in employment.

A school place for everyone?

Another nightmare scenario is that once the overview of the supply and demand for school places is taken away from Local Education Authorities, there is chaos. The superb £24 million new building of Christ the King School in Merseyside was completed in 2009. A year and half later it faces closure because of a shortage of pupils. It is well known that the demographic of school populations is notoriously hard to predict. Future planning will be made even more difficult as a variety of ‘do-it-yourself’ schools spring up, financed by the state but run by parents and staffed by unqualified teachers with little or no accountability to outside bodies. While the number of such ‘free’ schools will always be very small, they can have a disproportionate effect on neighbouring schools where the school budget is decided by the numbers of pupils on roll and falling numbers are equated with ‘failing’ schools. There are approximately 13 million children and young people of school age in Britain. Their statutory right to a school place in their neighbourhood is threatened by this ongoing fragmentation of the state education system.

The nightmare continues

The muddled and spiteful directives streaming out of the Department for Education all add to the chaos. Geography and History are now to be prioritised at GCSE but funding for these subjects is to be cut by 100% for universities. Every child in the country will have cognitive development assessments by the age of two and a half to monitor for Special Needs support, but hundreds of Sure Start programmes will be slashed throughout the country or privatised, as proposed for the 36 Sure Start projects in Greater Manchester.

In real school, not ‘dream’ school, the future is bleak for young people. At the age of 16, Jamie’s students will already have been graded since the age of five in four national tests. They now face a 25% unemployment rate, loss of Education Maintenance Allowance, larger classes and fewer teachers. The most important lesson they can now learn is to fight for their rights.

Susan Davidson

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 220 April/May 2011


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