Education Notes: Education for an ever more competitive market – sometimes

It is a particular vice of this government to combine low-minded moralising with high-level grovelling to big business. Labour’s ‘respect agenda’, a package of insults and attacks on working class families, is brought out of the cupboard every time critical voices are raised against privatisation in the public services. Bad parenting is unpatriotic, goes the spin. It results in failure at school, low skill levels and unemployability. The very future economic stability of the country depends upon raising the skills level of the new workforce if Britain is to remain a global competitor in the international league table of prosperity. This is why the regime of testing and targets holds state education in an iron grip and why parents are subject to threats and sanctions, such as loss of housing benefit or imprisonment.

The national curriculum, from reception class to school-leaving is designed for ‘employability’ but the government fails to get the poorest young people into work. The previous £40 a week minimum training allowance for work-based learning programmes such as Entry to Employment has been cut to a means-tested £10 to £30 a week and as a result recruitment has fallen off by 50%.

Employers do not give skills training unless it pays for itself. In 1998, it was estimated that only 13% of work places could be designated high-performance work places, where, for example, teamwork and responsibility were encouraged. The workplace Employment Relations Survey carried out in 2004 found that this proportion had risen to 16% of workplaces, covering 28% of the national workforce. Professor David Ashton of the Centre for Labour Market Studies says, ‘Current government policy is focused on persuading employers that if they invest in skills there is an automatic pay-off in terms of profitability’ but he adds that ‘many businesses know only too well that raising the skills of their employees eats into profits’.

Contestability and competition
The aggression and fear that has been created around bad parenting and the skills agenda is a diversion to justify the privatisation of public resources. The government uses spin-speak, and Gordon Brown is excellent at this, such as ‘driving forward the contestability and competition agenda to introduce choice by layering resources to needs’. This means outsourcing and selling off the public sector to companies who will sell on services to consumers. At times, the new customers are a section of the public who can now afford to buy extra privileges such as private schooling for their own children or the customer may be the government itself.

From junior librarian to Guantanamo Bay camp
Thumb prints of children as young as 11 are used as an identification system in around 3,500 British schools, usually in libraries but also for attendance and cashless school lunches. A Leave Them Kids Alone campaign has been set up by parents in Cambridge to protest about issues of security and privacy. There are, however, further grounds for outrage. A military company connected to US interrogators at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay Camp in US occupied Cuba is behind the fingerprinting system used in British schools. VeriCool, which runs the finger printing system, is part of Anteon, a US company which provides training and technology for the US military. Anteon has the contract to run specialist courses on interrogation and counter-intelligence at Fort Huachuca in Arizona, headquarters of the US Army Intelligence Center. The company, recently bought by a larger defence business, General Dynamics Information Technology, has been accused of training interrogators who worked at Guantanamo Bay Camp. Its instructors have included former staff sergeant Jeanette Arocho-Bukart who was criticised for humiliating Iraqi captives at Abu Ghraib using techniques such as smearing them with red ink which they were told was menstrual blood. Anteon was also involved in running news websites in the Balkans and Africa which claimed to provide impartial coverage but were in fact funded by the US military to broadcast propaganda. The Pentagon ruled in December 2005 that the websites had not violated US law. What better illustration could there be that the business sector, admired by the Labour government as efficient and well-managed, is based on the torture and tears of others?

Never mind the $2 million
Academy sponsorship of privately run schools by religious groups, charities and businesses, now includes West Bromwich Albion football club, HSBC and one of Britain’s biggest pub owners. Newly-built state funded buildings at an average cost of £30 million each are being handed over for £2 million payment, now deferred over 5 years, as an inducement to those who want to buy friends and influence people. It is attractive to be a benefactor, to give tax-deductible funds away, to be an official philanthropist. Take for example, Jack Petchey, with a personal fortune of £525 million, up from £300 million in 2005 and the 119th richest man in Britain. His academy opens this year in Hackney, London, one of the most deprived boroughs in the country. The eighty year old is a local boy made good, his latest investment being the purchase of 205 pubs for £98 million. He has already given £15 million to Essex and east London clubs and schools and the Petchey Academy will be the crowning glory of his charitable legacy. However, the taint of criminality attached to academy sponsorship in the cash for honours scandal is the least of the problems. Parents protest that huge new academies, many with a Christian fundamentalist ethos, are being established at the cost of the closure of a range of local schools. The rushed legislation that was bullied through to establish the new academy schools is unclear about who really runs these institutions and whether national wages and conditions apply. Parent protest groups are springing up all over the country despite threats that money will be withheld from refurbishing crumbling buildings if the local community does not go along with selling off state schools.
Susan Davidson

FRFI 193 October / November 2006


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