Friday, 18 March 2016

Privatising the Public School System

George Osborne this week laid out plans to force all schools to convert to being academies by 2020. This means that students already in Hampstead will be faced with attending a school in the near future that was not the one they joined, and parents will be given the choice of their children attending an academy or a private school; a choice which, for some, simply doesn't exist.

For those who don't know, an academy is an independent, state-funded school, which receives its funding directly from central government, rather than through the local authority. The day-to-day running of the school is controlled by the head teacher, but they are overseen by (typically private) sponsors and may be part of an academy chain.

As state school students, we should probably say before we continue that we are avid believers that the comprehensive system is one of the best schooling systems we could hope for, and one that year-on-year churns out a great many well-rounded individuals (as well as a couple of knobs, but what can you do, eh?) So, here are a couple of arguments surrounding the debate over the government's move:

The first problem is the notion of academies reporting straight to central government. Whilst, in an idealistic world, this would be a wonderful idea, saving funds on local middle management of the schools system, it is unrealistic to feasibly believe that the relationship between local heads and central government will become strained very quickly. The point of a local education authority is to have a tighter-knit relation between schools and the 'authority' of the situation. This means local education officers can assess situations in person, face-to-face, can know the specific problems of the schools in their area and the role the community has in a school; something which Joe Government will be hard-pressed to comprehend. Equally, one local authority officer may be responsible for ten schools or so, under the new system the central government will be responsible for the everyday qualms of all state-run schools.

Also, whilst the presiding government already has near free-reign over the curriculum, having a local authority in between (especially in London wherein most councils are not Conservative) means government diktats cannot be so easily forced upon Heads. Schools also have local, democratically elected representatives to fight their corner in extremis.

There are also issues with the concept of an academy itself. The instigation of academy chains and private sponsorship of state schools leads to cases of volatile mismanagement, under-management of some schools within those chains, and a demand from private interests for such schools to pursue better grades over a more rounded education. It is a fact that private schools are better at getting students higher grades, but comprehensive schools have a knack for producing fundamentally interesting, creative individuals, perhaps at the expense of a few grades. It seems to be a trend in Hampstead School and across the country that exam results are being prized over genuine meaningful education, something which is distasteful for a lot of committed teachers. One year of bad results, a private sponsor may choose to pull out of the agreement, leaving the school in a limbo state.

There is something to be said about the nature of academy schools. The last Labour government introduced such a school type as a means of drastically changing the way failing schools functioned; an academy status was part of the 'special measures' as an antidote to whatever had failed the school previously. If all schools are academies, what happens when one of them fails? Anyone who watched BBC Question Time last night would have seen the Education Secretary asked this exact question; she could not find a response.

There is also this element of force from the government, that schools don't have an element of choice of their status. When asked what if schools don't want to be academies, all the Education Secretary could muster was something along the lines of 'well, they're just going to have to deal with it'. Not one to miss a media opportunity, our very own Head was quick to take to the Guardian to respond to the proposed changes to the education system. Not mincing words, he said “At Hampstead school, we’ve considered it, but up to now we’ve decided that remaining a maintained school is the best for us. That’s not to say we would not consider becoming an academy at some time in the future, but that would have been our choice. But our choice has been taken away and what we consider to be best for our school will be ignored.”

The words 'taste', 'own' and 'medicine' come to mind. Remaining as on-the-fence as Ronseal, he continued that "[t]here are lots of schools that have become academies for all the right reasons. There are some very good academies – my children go to academies." Contradictorily, he then went on to say the idea that an academy automatically raises standards has “been proven not to be true”, and that the "structures themselves don’t always have the impact people expect them to have,” he said. “My worry is that the process of converting to an academy at a time which would not be of our own choosing will distract from the core purpose of raising standards for our children.

Credit where credit is due (although analogies about stopped clocks and type-writer based monkeys may be apt), the Head did make some salient points: on the proposals for more funding for extra-curricular activities, he said: “I’m not sure what the logic is. Most schools already do extra-curricular activities. It seems invidious that some schools will get funded to do it and some will not. New money is always welcome but the most important issues facing schools at the moment is the basic budget, that and teacher recruitment.”

Perhaps most schools do put on extra-curricular activities, but this one seems to be doing so less and less. However, on the revised national funding formula for schools (see Trash passim), he remarked that “London schools have been the global success story of the last decade, I absolutely understand the concerns of schools and academies feeling the pinch. But you don’t solve that by taking money from the most successful schools.”

Obviously, there are a great many more points to be made on such dramatic changes to the education system, but this article is already longer than the average assembly. There are various petitions going that you can sign opposing these moves, and we urge you do if you feel strongly. That said, these changes, however, contentious, come easily to a government whose average voter is over 65, has no children and, if they do, has sent them to a private school.

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