Avoiding the Tory disaster in Education

 

Last week, as a governor, I spent my morning at my local primary school completing an annual return and reviewing our budget for the next financial year (as an accountant, I get all the fun jobs). The atmosphere was a strange one. As a school that has successfully fought off an attempt at academy conversion, the staff were deeply upset about the grand announcement from George Osborne, that all schools will become academies by 2020. Meanwhile, our excellent Local Education Authority advisor was clearly and understandably out of sorts having just been made effectively redundant.

The policy being pushed forward by the government is going to be a disaster for primary schools, and everyone working in the sector knows this. Quite simply, the size of primary schools prevents them from having the necessary infrastructure to make an academy structure feasible. The destruction of the Local Education Authority support network will do irreparable damage to our capacity to support primary leaders in their incredibly varied roles.

Placed alongside the erosion of teacher quality (goodbye Qualified Teacher Status), the effective withdrawal of accountability to parents (your MP is going to have a lot less influence on the Department of Education than your County Councillor had with the local authority) and the massive centralisation of all decision making, we are looking at a staggering escalation of this government’s assault on liberal education in this country.

As with many working within the education system, having watched the Tories get their way for 6 years, the first instinct is to protect our 500 children by approaching these changes as pragmatically as possible and start assessing the least disruptive path towards conversion.

However the more I reflect on the long term damage of this government proposal, the more I believe we must focus all of our efforts into defeating it. In the worst case, we have four years to mitigate the damage if we lose.

Teachers at my school were already talking of strikes and I suspect this will be Labour’s immediate response (particularly given the current leadership). However the Tory controlled media will easily deflect blame and channel resentment back towards the profession. Every time you strike, a Tory has a fantasy about Margaret Thatcher.

Unfortunately  (and possibly intentionally), the profession is also currently flat out preparing for the massive curriculum changes from Mr Gove which will be introduced in September.

Meanwhile the political opposition remains focused on fighting Gideon and Dave’s battles for them by pouring our efforts and resources into preventing Brexit. Admittedly very few things are more important but, for me, defeating this education ‘reform’ is one of them because a greatly diminished education system will lead to a more divided and fearful society where nationalists are more likely to succeed in the long-term.

So,  what do we actually do?

I believe we need to work in partnership with teachers across the country to make sure parents realise the full impact of these changes.

The first important step in doing that is to plan a disruptive parliamentary campaign to block any related legislation.  I do not understand the nuance of Westminster processes, but I would like our MPs to explain exactly how this can defeated. Will we be able to use the House of Lords once again, or will we need to target marginal Conservatives in the Commons? These are key questions requiring urgent answers.

With such a plan, we should be reaching out the National Association of Head Teachers and the unions to raise awareness. Strikes will likely be futile, but I believe that the talents of the teaching profession could be used far more effectively through more constructive mass disobedience. The media might be ignoring this issue, but most parents spend more time in and around school than they do reading the tabloid newspapers. As liberals, we naturally want to keep politics out of schools but the Tories have made it a battle ground and now we must be ruthless in our efforts to stop them.

With those collective resources, we should (at least) be able to target every Tory in a marginal seat and ensure that they either vote to block the changes or, in 2020, will be held directly responsible for the inevitable carnage this policy causes. This strategy is already proving very effective in forcing a u-turn on disability benefits and should be pursued throughout this parliament.

It’s a long-shot, our party is greatly diminished, but we will be truly admitting to failure if we no longer even try to protect an education system which is core to our liberal values.

* Jamie joined the Lib Dems in 2014 and was elected as City Councillor for West Chesterton in May 2018.

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20 Comments

  • Agree with just about all of Jamie’s points about the effect of this policy on primary schools, but I feel I must raise a point of order (as they say !).
    Regarding the end of qualified teacher status, the public may have the impression that an unqualified teacher is a person who is simply dragged in off the street and placed in front of a class. In practice no head teacher would do this in an age when OFTED is looking over your shoulder. More often an unqualified teacher is someone who has been teaching in further or higher education, or who has a foreign qualification not recognised, or is simply an expert in a particular narrow field who will be teaching just that speciality (often in the sixth form). Steven Hawking would almost certainly be regarded as an unqualified teacher if he turned up at your local comprehensive to teach physics. You may think that’s a nonsense, I would tend to agree.
    It is an inconvenient truth that many “qualified” teachers are not that great. If you doubt that statement, take out a FOI request on your LA and find out how many local teachers are on a competency warning ?
    Any decline in the teaching standards has extremely deep rooted causes going back to the 1980s and the QTS issue is a bit of a red herring.

  • Graham Evans 21st Mar '16 - 5:00pm

    “Quite simply, the size of primary schools prevents them from having the necessary infrastructure to make an academy structure feasible.” This is not entirely true because there are already quite a number of primary schools which are academies. I think the problem will be competition for limited specialist expertise, both on governing bodies and in school management. One possibility is that in practice primary schools will have to group themselves together in some sort of federal structure. This may well work easily enough in urban areas, but less so in rural and semi-rural areas. If that happens what of course you will have created is a sort of shadow LEA, and I imagine the many of the professionals so employed will have come from the LA!

  • The destruction of local education authorities is a disaster for local democracy and for local accountability – as well as for co-operation and support between schools in those local authorities. I hope the Liberal Democrat M.P.’s fight it tooth and nail.

    When I started my teaching career (in Westmorland) I remember with gratitude the help and support I received from the LEA – and in particular the inspirational leadership of the Chief Adviser, the late Glyn Harris of Kendal.

    Thank goodness we don’t have such a system in Scotland.

  • My grand child attends a primary. Recently it became an Academy formed from a group of schools, one a high school with a good academic record and its 7 feeder primary’s, total of up to 2,500 pupils. This has apparently been examined at considerable length and from my contacts with PTA reps etc seems to be generally agreeable.
    Frankly I do not personally know whether it is advantageous or not but others who seem to know a lot more than I do say it will .
    Think we have to be very careful before jumping into criticism. Nothing is perfect not least the current system.

  • PS Last sentence – insert ‘an Academy’ system in Scotland..

  • David Allen 21st Mar '16 - 7:30pm

    Theakes, it’s a known phenomenon that all experiments in education tend initially to succeed. That’s because the experimenters are keen to prove their point, they pile resources and enthusiastic people into their initial trials, and they get good results. Then some fool concludes that their innovation must be brilliant. Then, the innovation gets turned over to everyone else. Once the run-of-the-mill and the less-well-resourced people also get to operate the innovative system, its apparent advantages frequently disappear without trace.

    The businesses which have pushed and pushed to take over schools know this. Of course academies got some reasonable early results. All innovations do. When every school becomes an academy, expect no improvement on local authority control. And, expect higher costs, as business profits then need to be found from the pockets of taxpayers.

  • Graham Evans 21st Mar '16 - 8:56pm

    It should not be forgotten that FE colleges have been independent of the LEAs since John Major won the 1992 GE. Given the fact that FE and 6th form colleges educate more 16-19 year olds than the schools sector and no one complains about the lack of LA control I’m not sure that elected councillors as a group – as opposed to acting as individuals – contribute much to the education of this particular age cohort. What however is of more concern to me is the fact that in practice the autonomy of these institutions is being increasingly undermined by Westminster centralisation. I think this is the real danger of a wholesale academisation programme of schools, even though nominally the schools should have greater opportunities to innovate.

  • Jamie Dalzell 21st Mar '16 - 10:00pm

    Thanks for the comments guys.

    I am not declaring the current system is perfect. However I do believe every single major announcement is going to make things worse. A lot worse.

    Regarding forced academisation in its current form, it is inarguably a massive attack on accountability and local democracy (important things in my liberal opinion). I would also note that drawing comparisons with the current patchy data on existing academies is extremely flawed. There has been some optionality so far; the schools that have not converted have done this based on their knowledge of their operational needs. The damage that will be caused through this measure is not possible to even estimate. However I would note how quickly the Tories appear to ignore ‘free market’ principles when they get in the way of handing control of our schools over to their wealthiest donors.

    One issue I have not even touched upon is the abolition of the PGCE. This is an important route that ensures large numbers of trainees have experience with several different schools and start their careers with much wider professional networks.

    Their abolition will massively reduce university capacity for key research and policy development.

    Worst of all, the destruction of LEAs and Education Faculties will be very quick but their replacement will take a generation. The Tories are salting the earth and so far I have not seen any desire to stop them despite them having a tiny majority, no mandate for this and an ongoing civil war in their own ranks.

  • It would be useful to identify and have an analysis of who the existingi Academy providers are. There has certainly been Ofsted criticism for the huge salaries of some of the non-teaching managers.

    I guess some of them will not be particularly fragrant to anyone supporting liberalism.

    The other question is what happens to a national pay scheme and pensions for teachers.

  • Passing through 21st Mar '16 - 10:24pm

    @Chris Cory

    “Steven Hawking would almost certainly be regarded as an unqualified teacher if he turned up at your local comprehensive to teach physics.”

    I think the mistake is in assuming that should Steven Hawking rock up to your local secondary school to teach 30 bored Year 7s on a wet Friday afternoon the wonders of Heat Transfer that he’d be any good at it. Teacher training is more than just subject content knowledge, that is actually only a very small part of the skillset.

    And I say that as one of these “experts in a narrow field” who has recently retrained as a teacher; my 15 years in medical research, PhD, MSc etc. count for very little in the classroom and the reality is I barely scraped through my ITT and NQT year.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 22nd Mar '16 - 1:28am

    Very interesting , but a little generalised and making assumptions.

    Two things , firstly , all academies are neither good nor bad , your tone implies they are per se bad , which is a generalisation , if you mean that ,which I am sure you do not .I think it is the forced element , the Westminster know s best, or know all ,aspect, of the new policy that is wrong .Similarly , while you , sensibly allude to how wrong it is to talk of strikes as an answer , we surely would be wrong to assume all teachers are against , the policy, or academisation , some teachers are Tories and some Labour and Liberal Democrat , teachers or other educational professionals might support it !Never assume to speak for the whole party , or anyone , for that matter.

    Secondly , do not, please ,claim nothing is more important than winning the referendum for remain, in the EU.Again , even if one is staunch for that view, in our party , others are not , and many who are ,could pick other issues that are of vital importance !

  • I really fear for how children with additional needs will be treated when all schools become academies/businesses.

  • Jamie Dalzell 22nd Mar '16 - 8:17am

    Thanks again for the comments. Alistair raises a very good point, with LEAs playing a key role in managing admissions for children with additional needs. I would include kids with behavioural problems, with no answer I have seen on what will happen to pupils following exclusion.

    Regarding Lorenzo’s comments, my attempted point is that there are more important issues then EU referendum but that it is drawing massive campaigning focus.

    Meanwhile I am proposing an opposing position on this issue as it will impact the education of millions of children and there are very strong reasons to believe it will be hugely detrimental. We are a political party that should have positions and policy on such key matters; currently was are offering little to address either the teacher recruitment (and retention) crisis or this emerging disaster.

  • Shaun Whitfield 22nd Mar '16 - 11:19am

    Anyone who thinks forced academisation and the growth of academy chains may be a good idea should look at the Local Schools Network website, particularly the posts by Henry Stewart. It provides hard information to show that, so far, academies are far from the magic bullet Gove and now Morgan would have us believe. In fact, when it comes to school improvement, the evidence (often from the DfE itself) shows that LA maintained schools do better than their comparators in the academy system.

  • I share Jamie’s anger, because it is a diktat from government, following closely on a report from the chief inspector heavily critical of many academies and academy chains; hence not based on evidence that it will improve our schools. Our proposal during the last year of coalition for a Royal College of Teaching (to enable professional development led by those who know how to do it) is a much more effective element in the task of bringing about a more widespread enhancement of the quality of teaching and learning.
    As to accountability, it is beyond belief that this government thinks it can handle that through the 8 schools commissioners, who have enormous power, but cannot possibly have the detailed local knowledge, to make judgments about each school in their area. It also ignores the need for support to our schools; inspection and criticism is not enough.
    Another great concern is the so-called freedom of academies and their chains; the regulations are totally inadequate. Neil Carmichael MP, Chair of the Education Select Committee announced on 18th March, an inquiry and says that Multi-Academy Trusts “can take all decisions on how the schools run.” That means the power lies in the hands of the CEOs and the trustees, not the governors or school heads. In a similarly guarded statement, he said on 16th March that “The drive to change school structures will pose particular issues for primary schools”.
    Last Thursday, a Conservative on Hampshire Council spoke eloquently and emotionally against the government’s decision, giving hope that there could be a widespread objection to this diktat.

  • Thank you Nigel. I was wondering what Tories involved in local government would make of this because it is taking away a huge chunk of responsibility and power from them and I anticipate another division in the Tory party as a consequence. If some become disillusioned then they will be less likely to offer activist support to their MPs and this might be a weapon we can use to oppose this centralising and undemocratic proposal.

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