Thousands of teachers, parents, school governors and students will join the ‘March for Education’ in London on Tuesday 25th June. The march on the Department for Education kicks off a planned series of regional and national strikes and other actions aimed at ending Education Secretary Michael Gove’s assault on our education system, and those charged with delivering it.
Gove’s assault on the education system has been so broad and sweeping, it is almost impossible to know where to begin in dismantling the omnishambles. Gove’s policies have laid siege on the physical infrastructure of the education system (our schools and playing fields), the curriculum, the management and operation of schools and the education system, the qualifications and assessment process and the terms and conditions of employment of teaching staff. Nothing has been left untouched, and nothing is changing for the better.
Pensions, Pay and Workload
Back in 2008, before Gove or Austerity, UK teachers were already working longer hours, for lower pay and retiring with a smaller pension than teachers in many countries in Europe. Yet Gove is out to reduce pay, pensions and working conditions yet further, implying a culture of entitlement and privilege in the profession which simply doesn’t exist.
Gove plans to remove restrictions on the length of the school day and term times, to mirror the adult working day. He has not seemed to give thought to when the teachers would prepare and review lesson plans, mark homework or fulfil the host of other obligations from after and pre-school clubs, invigilating exams, managing parents’ evenings and administrative tasks. Neither has Gove considered the effect this will have on children, who also need time to…be children.
The Academisation of our Schools
Academy Schools are publicly funded independent state schools (limited companies) – this means they receive their funding from central government and are accountable directly to central government, rather than their Local Authority.
During thirteen years of New Labour government, 203 state schools were turned into Academies. In just three years of the Coalition – this has risen more than twelve fold, to more than 2,600 (with a further 500 in the pipeline). This might suggest the programme was so successful it called for rapid national roll out. But it doesn’t.
A recent report by the Public Accounts Committee, the parliamentary select committee responsible for ensuring value for money for the tax payer, condemned the programme as ‘complex and inefficient’, leading to more than £1bn over spending. This £1bn had to be met by the budgets for other non-academy schools.
The report does not mince words and reports major issues across the programme including: poor cost control, a lack of transparency over expenditure, a governance and compliance framework prone to failure (exacerbated by significant staff cuts at the Department for Education), and confusion over roles, responsibilities and accountability. Yet the programme continues apace.
Despite claiming to protect the Education budget, spending figures from last year demonstrate Gove is doing quite the opposite. Last year, the budget for education was cut by 5.7% in real terms. Whilst infrastructure spending was cut 81%, and the Non-Academy Schools Budget was cut 4.31%, the budget for Academy Schools was increased by a whopping 191%.
The state sector is being starved of funds, while the Academy sector enjoys a glut of funding which it spends inefficiently and opaquely.
There is no Such Thing as a Free School
Free Schools are taxpayer funded institutions, they are mixed ability schools which receive funding to build and operate new schools from the Department for Education. Free Schools are sold on the basis that teachers, students and charities can set up their own community schools with financial support but greater academic and cultural freedom. But academies can also be set up by private schools, faith groups and even businesses.
In 2011, 24 Free Schools opened across the country. This more than doubled in 2012, with 55 such schools opening their doors. So far, more than £1.4bn (See ‘List of Capital Expenditure Funding’) of capital funding alone has been provided by the taxpayer, for businesses to open schools and for private schools to scrap their fees. Free Schools suck funding from the state school sector.
Then came the issue of oversight. While many followed the knee jerk criticism of Local Authority oversight of schools – in reality, parents want to know their school is following national standards and they want action taken when they are found wanting. Schools cannot simply manage themselves. Therefore, Free Schools are now managed directly by the Department for Education. As Academies are also now falling under the direct control of the DofE, more than 3,000 of the nation’s schools are now managed by a handful of civil servants in Westminster. Far from creating more localised governance over schools, Gove has actually centralised power – moving it out of local communities, and into his own office.
Then there is the matter of performance. Gove received a bloody nose yesterday, when his flagship Free School was placed into Special Measures by school inspectors Ofsted. The Discovery Free School in West Sussex was given Ofsted’s lowest rating of ‘inadequate’ and received severe criticism from inspectors.
The leadership of the Primary School were found by the inspectors to have ‘serious shortcomings’ and ‘believe the school is far better than it is’. In this sense, they are perhaps a perfect reflection of the Education Secretary that created them.
The school is not alone; a third of Free Schools assessed by Ofsted have been found to ‘require improvement’ (fail to reach the grade of ‘Good’). Therefore these schools perform no better, and in fact marginally worse than ordinary maintained schools where 74% receive a rating of ‘Good’ or higher.
There is also evidence that Free Schools are largely a middle class project and are not being built in areas where demand is highest. This is contributing to capacity issues in our schools. 20.3% of Primary Schools are full or have pupils in excess of school capacity, while 79.6% have one or more unfilled places. The numbers were broadly reflected in Secondary education. It was recently revealed that there will be a shortfall of 250,000 school places by 2014.
In short, Gove is removing local control from schools, handing public money to private interests to run schools, these schools are performing worse than ordinary state schools, and he is not building enough schools in the right areas to meet the needs of our children.
The ‘List of Facts’ Curriculum
Gove has driven a coach and horses through the curriculum, declaring a focus on retention of data and facts over understanding and creativity. Students will also face a decrease in time dedicated to lessons such as Drama, Art, Music and Physical Education. It is perhaps the development of the History curriculum that provides the best summary of Gove’s collegiate approach to Education.
Gove unveiled his new History curriculum, and with it his plans to reduce the subject to a romp through the stories of Great White Men of the British Isles, and tales of the Empire. This confining of taught history to a tiny island in the Atlantic, albeit our own, is training a generation of school children for world that no longer exists, while denying them access to a thrilling world beyond their own doorstep.
Gove made a big song and dance about inviting in the likes of Stephen Mastin and Simon Schama to support development of his new, exciting and (buzz word warning) ‘rigorous’ curriculum. Instead, after a specious and disorganised ‘consultation’, Mastin reports:
“Between January and the publication of this document – which no one involved in the consultation had seen – someone has typed it up and I have no idea who that is…There is no world history in there at all except when Britain bumps into these places.”
Professor Schama has also rejected the final curriculum, which he claims bears little relation to any advice he provided. Speaking at The Hay Festival, Schama called the curriculum ‘insulting and offensive’. He went on to say:
“This is a document written by people who have never sat and taught 12-year-olds in a classroom,” he told an audience of teachers. “None of you should sign up to it until we trap Michael Gove in a classroom and tell him to get on with it.”
This epitomises Gove’s approach to working in concert – he just doesn’t. When he receives criticism for this, he becomes aggressive and intransigent.
Zero Tolerance for Criticism
The criticism and warning from those actively involved in the education of our children and young adults has been united, consistent, loud and sustained. It has also been entirely ignored.
Recently, 100 leading education academics wrote a letter to Gove, published in the Independent, condemning the curriculum. They warned the ‘mountain of data will not develop children’s ability to think’, and that the micromanagement of the curriculum by a few bureaucrats in Gove’s office ‘betrays a serious distrust of teachers.’ The professors and teachers also state that the net effect will be a ‘dumbing down of teaching and learning’.
Gove even garnered the unique accolade of receiving a Vote of No Confidence from the National Association of Head Teachers last month. The historically softly spoken Union of 28,500 head teachers broke with tradition with this landmark vote to ‘send the strongest possible message’ to the renegade Education Secretary that his reforms were ‘not in the best interests of children’.
The UK’s three biggest Teacher’s Unions, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the NASUWT passed similar votes at their Easter conferences.
This was followed up by more than 2,000 teachers putting their names to a petition condemning Gove’s ‘list of facts’ curriculum.
Gove’s response to this almost universal rejection of his policies was to denounce the critics as ‘enemies of promise’. In a letter to the Mail on Sunday, he wrote “the new Enemies of Promise are a set of politically motivated individuals who have been actively trying to prevent millions of our poorest children getting the education they need”.
This from the representative of a government that has scrapped the Educational Maintenance Allowance which helped the poorest youngsters stay in education, binned the AimHigher Programme which encouraged children from disadvantaged backgrounds to aspire to and prepare for University, and trebled the tuition fees for students to attend University. The hypocrisy is nauseating.
Time for the Fight Back
Teachers, academics, head teachers, governors, parents and students themselves have participated in consultations only to have their input ignored. They have written publicly of their criticisms to apply further pressure, and been dismissed as the enemy within. They have even passed votes of no confidence in the education secretary en masse, to no effect. It is time for direct action.
Earlier this year Unions issued a list of 25 activities undertaken by teachers outside of their contracts which they should cease to perform, as an act of civil disobedience. The action was intended to draw attention to the myriad unpaid work of teachers, and provide a strike of sorts which would not impact students as significantly as a school day strike. Instead of listening, Gove wrote a letter to all Head Teachers threatening to dock the pay of teachers, unless they desisted from the action.
On Tuesday 25th June, the ‘March for Education’ launches the direct action phase of the fight back against Gove – with teachers, academics, parents, school governors and students marching on the Department of Education. Speakers will include Christine Blower, NUT General Secretary, Melissa Benn (writer and campaigner), Owen Jones (journalist), and Kenny Frederick (head teacher).
“Unless the Secretary of State responds positively to the unions’ demands, a rolling programme of strike action will continue into the autumn term and will include a one day all-out national strike before the end of the autumn term.”
We all have a stake in the education of our nation’s children. For that reason alone, we should stand in solidarity with those who know best how to enthuse, inspire and educate them.
Simon Schama concluded his criticism of Gove with the following stirring sentences: “History is not about self-congratulation. It’s not really about chasing the pedigree of the wonderfulness of us…Nor about chasing the pedigree of the reprehensible awful nature of us. History is meant to keep the powerful awake at night and keep them honest.”
Ultimately, Gove’s assault on the education system and those who deliver it serves only to diminish the capacity of future generations to fulfil their task of keeping the powerful awake at night, and keeping them honest. Join the fight back.
Join the ‘March for Education’ on June 25th.
Find out more about the strikes.
Follow @Govewatch to keep an eye on Gove’s latest machinations.