Opinion: It shouldn’t just be about the NHS

As an education campaigner and someone who believes in the principles behind the NHS, I have been following the news about the changes we have managed to make to the health bill with interest, and, obviously, pleasure that we have made a difference.

But when are we going to get our collective heads out of the sand when it comes to the privatisation of state education, where “any willing provider” that we were all so horrified about when proposed in the health bill is already rampaging through the education sector?

It will not be long, believe me, where we are seen as being inconsistent. And it’s no good reiterating points about Peter Downes’ motion (brilliant though it was) to conference last Autumn, as if that was enough. It’s not. The whole sector is being turned upside down as we speak. The tipping point is approaching where all schools will become academies. Gove is engineering this situation through various methods right now. See his most recent announcement today re: taking over the 200 worst performing primaries and handing them over to private sponsors. Then see his announcement of raising the bar to 50% passes in GCSEs, which will give him the right to intervene and hand over hundreds of schools.

Bruce Liddington can see all this very clearly and knows he (and others) are going to clean up. See my recent blog here.

Now all this would be all right if academies were the answer – but all the evidence shows that they are not. This is a phenomenal waste of taxpayer money at a time when we are supposed to be exercising restraint. Who knows how much academies are going to cost. In legal fees alone, it must be well into the millions. And they are getting more for capital than maintained schools, don’t forget. This really is scandalous.

A request to all of you. Some are talking of having another motion on the NHS at the Autumn Conference. If we are going to have a motion, can it not just be about the NHS, but about the ideology that is behind both the NHS bill and the education bill currently going through Parliament? It would be a way of showing the public that we are aware of what is going on in education as a party, and that we are active within Government on these issues.

We have already missed a significant opportunity of publicly airing where we stand on the education bill through not having it on the Social Liberal Forum conference agenda – despite my pleas to get it on the agenda. We cannot miss the opportunity of getting together a comprehensive motion that addresses issues shared by both health and education bills at the Autumn conference.

Don’t forget, although this may be politics – it’s also children’s life chances. I ask you, what’s more important?

If you are passionate about education, please get in touch with me at: [email protected]

Helen Flynn was Liberal Democrat candidate for Skipton & Ripon in the 2010 General Election and is an active education campaigner.

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  • It is about time someone raised this. I agree with every word of the article. The Lib Dems opposed academies in opposition and derided free schools (see David Laws’ comments during the election campaign). This manages to combine being the most centralising process in education ever – with ‘education advisers’ appointed to each academy by Gove (who now also takes all decisions on the building of new schools) – with being the most fragmenting process too. Tearing apart school cooperation in a vague attempt to create competition.

    Gove is incredibly inconsistent and illogical. For example: He wants a more rigorous national curriculum which compares with the best in the world; he will allow academies to opt out of the national curriculum; and he wants all schools to be academies – result … a national curriculum which applies to nobody.

    The biggest issue about academies, and particularly academy chains, is the total lack of accountability. Academies are effectively quangos. The trust board is elected by nobody and accountable to nobody. Parents are already reporting that their views are dismissed. They are told that if they don’t like the academies actions, they can go elsewhere. Obviously Local Authorities are unable to intervene on their behalf as they would in a maintained school. Staff views are ignored too – despite Gove’s claim that he is handing power to teachers.

    In terms of costs, most estimates of the cost of conversion are somewhere between £60k and £100k, depending on the complexity of the land transfer. £25k per school has been taken from the schools’ budget by Gove. The rest is met by schools and Local Authorities, which are not allowed to pass on any legal costs to the school or the DfE.
    If all 22,000 schools convert, this will mean a cost of over £2 billion – all handed over to lawyers and accountants rather than spent on children. Other costs, such as the £20k per school paid to Capita for the licence for the school’s information management system or the hugely increased insurance costs are not included in this.

  • All Gove is good for is keeping the Law courts in business. I just want politicians to stop meddling in education, especially the state system which is not the system that their own offspring use. Revaluate BSF – fine. Come up with reforms of the systems for school governance, fine. Develop better mechanisms to weed out poor teachers and poor head teachers fine. Waste billions on rebranding schools as Academies – completely insane.

  • I wouldn’t agree re: the straight comparison with health – there are many ways to deliver education, a very different situation to health. There is no reason why free schools cannot work when we already have a range of alternatives available for parents across the UK.

    I think as you said in Bingley yesterday, the real problem is with this disastrous academies focus, which really is just playing politics and indulging the whims of sponsors.

  • Steve Haynes 17th Jun '11 - 8:33am

    Except recent studies find that the Academies are actually having a positive impact. Not just in the academies themselves but in neighbouring schools as well, where they’re increasing performance, DESPITE lower quality of candidates ( market forces at work?) which means the kids that go to non academy schools are getting a better education because of academies ( and the academies themselves are generally doing a better job than when they were under state control).

    Unless you’re a stats geek I’d recommend just skipping to the conclusions. Overall though it sdays that the results ‘paint a relatively positive picture’ of academies.


    You are right though this is about Children’s life chances, but there is nothing inherently wrong with getting people other than the state involved in education. Hell to be honest we need more providers in so we can actually give kids a genuine range in education and not just feed them the line that you need to be academic and go to university to get somewhere in life. We need schools which teach technical skills as well, and by giving schools freedom to do so as academies do is one way to do it and develop specialist schools, or just give schools in general the freedom to set up their own things to cater to their students needs as individually as possible. We can’t do that by the state dominating the education sector as it currently does.

    As long as kids get a good education which is free, who cares about the bureaucracy and details behind it?

    Academies aren’t perfect, and as the LSE report states in the conclusion work still needs to be done on seeing whether the costs outweigh the benefits, but they genuinely do look promising, so dismissing them out of hand due to someone other than the state running the school is unwarranted to my mind.

  • Simon McG and others – This party just doesn’t “get” social class, does it?? The reason I joined the Liberals many years ago was to combat class as a whole. But until you realise that class and relative advantage / disadvantage is at the heart of educational performance, NOT quality of teaching (more is picked up at home and peer groups than ever is in the classroom, AND accept that certain policy and political stances need to flow from that, we will continue to see very different outcomes from different schools.

  • Andrew – I absolutely agree with you. I am a Governor at the Primary School I went to 50 years ago, and if I seriously thought we couldn’t improve kids’ life chances at all through school, I probably wouldn’t bother. I am as a Governor, very keen that we get the best possible teaching we can. I am also very keen not to patronise anyone, child parent or teacher. We all see adults who have been very successful in various fields who came from disadvantaged backgrounds – come to think of it, my own circumstances weren’t particularly advantaged. By the way, I think there were many more teachers around when I was at school who “set the bar low”, than there ever are now.

    Unfortunately the issues I raise are present in society, and we do no-one any favours by ignoring them, pretending that the quality of teaching is the main issue (which patronises teachers) or allowing snobbery to take over the school system.

  • I wonder why Liberal democrats are so fond of nationalised monopolies?

  • Helen Flynn 20th Jun '11 - 1:43pm

    It is interesting to read these comments responding to my blog. It strikes me that what we need to develop, as a counterpoint to Gove’s ‘reforms’, is an education system that is dynamic at the local level, in a way that LAs often are not at the moment. The problem with Gove’s reforms is that they are centred on individual schools as ways of raising attainment generally. From all the international evidence, there is no evidence that this happens, and indeed what evidence has been gathered here is so patchy that no overall view as to the effectiveness of academies can be formed.
    If you look internationally at very effective local school systems, such as in Alberta in Canada and solutions that the Stupski Foundation is trialling in 5 states in the USA, they are very different to Gove’s academy solution. Even though schools are autonomous, they are bound togetherand cooperate at a local level, and indeed are inspected and supported locally by people who know their own areas well and can pick up problems before they are likely to impact overall on individual children’s life chances. Thus, sink schools can be avoided. You can still have choice between different characters of schools in these systems, but they are not all reporting to the ‘Minister for Education’ at central government, nor are they democratically unaccountable, or in fact companies making annual returns to Companies House, like we now have here.
    I don’t have any problems with school autonomy, but I am sure that there does need to be some local strategy to ensure that standards and fairness (in things like admissions, exclusions and SEN, in particular) can be managed effectively and transparently.

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