‘All-out war’ on state education

Following the general election, Prime Minister Cameron and Education Secretary Morgan declared an ‘all-out war’ on ‘coasting schools’. All schools inspected by Ofsted will be taken out of local authority control and turned into academies and ‘free’ schools if they do not show improved results year on year.

The Ofsted inspectorate is a quango, a quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation, funded by the state. However, since it was set up in 1992 Ofsted has been used not to support schools, nurseries and child-care provision but to attack local authorities. Ofsted publishes standardised judgments on the performance of educational institutions. Significantly Ofsted’s verdicts on the success or failure of schools closely match national test results, which in England occur at the ages of four, seven, 11 and 14. Standard Attainment Targets, or Sats, were first introduced not as tests but as a tool for tracking children’s learning. Today, Sats results, together with Ofsted inspection judgments, are combined into league tables which rate schools annually against each other. Schools are graded as ‘outstanding’, ‘good’, ‘requires improvement’ (this was ‘satisfactory’ but the term was abandoned when Ofsted realised what the word means) or ‘inadequate’. Schools judged ‘inadequate’ are put into special measures which can mean sacking the head and/or staff and/or governors, followed by loss of reputation, pupils, income, increased workload for teachers, and regular inspections.

These bureaucratic procedures were designed, allegedly, to ‘raise attainment’ and to bring about ‘public accountability’. Ofsted and Sats between them were seen as the solution to the persistent figure of 20-25% pupils leaving school with little functional literacy. After nearly a quarter of a century of data collection, targets and tests this proportion remains much the same.

The real purposes behind the intense bureaucratisation of the education system were political. The first was to bring an end to a series of strikes by the teaching unions throughout 18 years of Tory government against funding cuts and lowered wages. Conditions had deteriorated so greatly in the state school sector that the middle class had become infuriated by overcrowded classrooms and collapsing buildings. The 1997 Labour general election victory was won in large part under Blair’s slogan ‘education, education, education’ and promises to address the impoverishment of schooling. Labour’s real intentions were to undermine the power of the teaching unions and to lock teaching into a system of punishment and reward by expanding the powers of Ofsted. Regular inspection reports claimed a quasi-scientific status and aimed to offload responsibility for educational failure onto teachers, parents and children.

By inflating the influence of the Ofsted inspectorate, a bureaucracy was created to stand between the Department for Education and the public. The costs of Ofsted at £207m a year, (the equivalent of 5,000 teachers annually) is an investment governments are willing to make. Politicians shelter behind the data of experts, specialists and consultants while they serve the interests of the ruling class and camouflage their programme of class antagonism. The fact is that all the information collected by successive governments shows consistently that the single biggest determinant of educational success is family wealth. Public spending on educational provision can mediate the inequalities between rich and poor, but it takes a socialist agenda to pursue this course and none is on offer. On the contrary, the programme ahead is class hostility and spending cuts. This is what lies behind the bellicose language of ‘all-out war’ on coasting schools.

3,300 schools across England are currently rated as ‘requires improvement’. The threat is that these schools will be taken out of local authority control and ‘academised’ or given away as ‘free’ schools. State funding will continue but will be transferred to non-governmental organisations (NGOs). These will be religious groups, corporate organisations, banks like Barclays, and, most recently, the arms manufacturer BAE.

The move to remove local authority responsibility is political. All the powers invested in Ofsted and the national testing regimes have been gathered together to lead the way to outsourcing control of education. NGOs displace state provision and open up an entry point for corporations, the capitalist media and ruling class interests to take over ever greater proportions of what was once the statutory duty of the nation to provide. The struggles of the past to improve the standard of living, education and health, are being rolled back by governments that are selling on their duties of care to whoever wants to rebrand the services formerly known as the public sector.

The original argument in support of academies was that schools would be freed from central government control, offer parents choice, and unleash entrepreneurial skills. Academies were also given the right to decide wage scales and working conditions outside national norms. But what was once a promise to gain a sponsor and extra funding is now a threat. The change to academy status brings with it a real loss of support from the local teaching infrastructure, and head teachers and bursars face a daily task of making complex bids for funding and buying in extra support.

So far 55% of secondary schools are academies and most are in ‘academy chains’ where education trusts run up to 77 schools. Following revelations of financial corruption and lowering standards the Department for Education (DfE) barred a dozen academy chains from taking on more schools last year. The Academies Enterprise Trust was instructed to get rid of at least eight of its schools. Which schools, and exactly what happened to them, is the subject of a Freedom of Information request since the DfE is very secretive about its academy programme. Academy leaders were urged to attend a conference to learn from the private sector about ‘brand management’. The founder of the Innocent soft drinks company told the leaders about how the firm grew from a start-up to a global brand in 10 years. Advice about strategy and financial planning was offered by consultancy firm Deloitte.

This neo-liberal trend of opening up and shedding state services is what the ‘all-out war’ is really about. Schools, ‘coasting’ or otherwise, will be transferred to the corporate sector in increasingly large numbers. At this moment four out of five state-funded schools are in local government control. The ruling class will bully and bust the system, starve education of funds, limit rights to schooling, and put the boot into the gains of the working class unless we organise the fight back now.

Susan Davidson

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 245 June/July 2015


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