Tories back down on academies

The Tories got it wrong

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has had to back down over plans, announced in Chancellor George Osborne’s budget, to force all schools to become academies (see FRFI 250). The proposal was foolishly dogmatic and was opposed by many, including Conservatives, who relish their role in local councils and on school governing boards and felt insulted by the idea that another institution could do the job better. Morgan got this wrong. It is as if she forgot that recent governments have been able to impose changes in the state education system only by playing off one section against another with special favours and extra grants. This was a diktat too far and there was a revolt against what was seen as the ‘nationalisation’ of the country’s schools and direct rule from Whitehall. Morgan will continue to use the inspectorate Ofsted as a useful intermediary, as it retains powers to take schools away from local education authorities if they are deemed to be ‘below the floor’.

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Academisation: this time we are all in this together

Academisation

The turmoil in the Conservative Party after the resignation of Iain Duncan Smith over proposed cuts to disability payments was spectacular. But Chancellor George Osborne’s biggest budget bombshell was the announcement that all primary and secondary schools in Britain must become Academy schools by 2022. Leaving aside the 7% of pupils educated in the private sector, this decision will affect the entire compulsory school population from the age of 5 to 17 years. To put this announcement in the budget speech, hijacking the role of the Education Secretary, indicates that the government has determined on far-reaching plans to change the structures of local and central government to its own advantage. This is an uncosted proposal; the only figure mentioned is the £1.5bn that will be stripped from local education authorities. Given that the current academy budget has been overspent by £1bn over two years, compulsory academisation is clearly a political priority that this government is prepared to finance whatever the cost.

Shrinking or expanding the state?

Academisation means that jurisdiction for schools is taken away from local authority control and become the direct responsibility of central government through the Department for Education (DfE). This represents a massive expansion of state-centralised control – which is why academisation has been described as ‘nationalisation’ by many commentators. The delivery of teaching, the organisation and day-to-day running of schools will be dispersed through a variety of education businesses, charities and religious foundations, otherwise known as ‘sponsors’. It is within these sponsored areas that the government intends to shrink state responsibility for schooling.

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Edinburgh school closures – the consequences of PFI

Following inspections in Gracemount and Craigmount High Schools in Edinburgh this month, 17 schools in the city were closed indefinitely following the Easter holiday. Five high schools, 10 primary schools, and two additional support schools, were found to be structurally unsound, with ‘severe defects’, leaving over 7,000 pupils unable to return to school in the run-up to exam times.

In addition many poor families in Edinburgh, who often rely on free meals to feed their children, have been severely affected. At one of the schools, Broomhouse Primary in the southwest of the city, over half of pupils qualify for free school meals. As a result, there has been a significant increase in the number of families who are forced to use food banks, as they rely on benefits or poverty wages for income.

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Student accommodation ‘the top-performing property investment field in the UK’

‘The UK student accommodation market is a rapidly expanding and increasingly lucrative field of investment. Growing faster than any other asset class since 2011, the number of UK students is predicted to grow at a rate of 15-20% over the next five years, increasing demand and making student accommodation the top-performing property investment field in the UK.’ (Select Portfolio investment newsletter, November 2015)

Investment in student housing reached a five-year high last year. According to the estate agent Savills, £5.8bn was pumped into the market in 2015. Newcastle is no exception to this growing trend, as investors rub their hands over the easy profits to be made from student accommodation. Government figures obtained by the local newspaper reveal that Newcastle has one of the highest proportions of student homes in England: ‘figures from The Department for Communities and Local Government show that the city had 7,578 homes exempt from council tax due to occupation by students. This represents 6% of the housing stock; one in 17 homes.’ (The Chronicle 19 Jan 2016)

Current schemes in Newcastle have created 11,000 student rooms since 2008. In contrast, in 2009 the council announced plans to build a mere 1,650 new council homes over a ten-year period and is currently missing this target by 38.3%. Addressing the lack of decent social housing is not an attractive investment prospect compared to the lucrative student accommodation market. The needs of communities are being overlooked whilst huge investment projects are swamping the city centre. Meanwhile, Newcastle Labour council has just unanimously voted through another £32m worth of cuts to services, bringing the total to £222m over the last five years.

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Education notes - FRFI 249 Feb/Mar 2016

Poverty haunts the classroom

Teachers are speaking up about the impact of benefit cuts on the health of their pupils. Anxiety and hunger do not make good companions to learning. Zero hours working contracts for parents make home life and meal times hard to organise. But it is the disruptive effect of the government’s bedroom tax that has been picked out as the most damaging in a new report by Professor Ruth Lupton from the University of Manchester. She says ‘the pressure put on families by this cut in benefits contributes significant hardship among low-income families.’ People are faced with the choice of paying the difference or losing their housing. Austerity means lost spaces at home and in the community with the closure of libraries, swimming pools and playgrounds. Property developers crowd in on our streets and pavements while overcrowding grows at home. There can be few more powerful indicators that the children of the working class are feared and hated than the new government policy to restrict child support to encourage the two-child family.

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