Forcing schools into the hands of unelected oligarchs is the latest contradiction of everything the market fetishists claim to stand for.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 5th March 2013
So much for all those treasured Tory principles. Choice, freedom, competition, austerity: as soon as they conflict with the demands of the corporate elite, they drift into the blue yonder like thistledown.
This is a story about England’s schools, but it could just as well describe the razing of state provision throughout the world. In the name of freedom, public assets are being forcibly removed from popular control and handed to unelected oligarchs.
All over England, schools are being obliged to become academies: supposedly autonomous bodies which are often “sponsored” (the government’s euphemism for controlled) by foundations established by exceedingly rich men. The break-up of the education system in this country, like the dismantling of the National Health Service, reflects no widespread public demand. It is imposed, through threats, bribes and fake consultations, from on high.
The published rules looked straightforward: schools will be forced to become academies only when they are “below the floor standard … seriously failing, or unable to improve their results”(1). All others would be given a choice. But in many parts of the country, schools which suffer from none of these problems are being prised out of the control of elected councils, and into the hands of central government and private sponsors.
For five years, until 2012, Roke primary school in Croydon, south London, was rated as “outstanding” by the government’s inspection service, Ofsted. Then two temporary problems arose. Several of the senior staff retired, leading to a short period of disruption, and a computer failure caused a delay in giving the inspectors the data they wanted(2). The school was handed the black spot: a Notice to Improve. It worked furiously to meet the necessary standards – and it has now succeeded. But before the inspection service returned to see whether progress had been made, the governors were instructed by the Department for Education to turn it into an academy.
In September last year the Department for Education held a closed meeting with the school’s governors, in which they were told (according to the chair of the governors) that if they did not immediately accept its demand “we will get the local authority to fire you, all of you … if the local authority don’t do it, we will. And we will put in our own interim board of governors, who will do what we say.”(3,4) The governors were instructed not to tell the parents about the meeting and their decision(5).
They did as they were told, partly because they had a sponsor in mind: the local secondary school, which had been helping Roke to raise its standards. They informed the department that this was their choice. It waited until the last day of term – December 12th – then let them know that it had rejected their proposal. The sponsor would be the Harris Federation. It was founded by Lord Harris, the chairman of the retail chain Carpetright. He is a friend of David Cameron’s and one of the Conservative party’s biggest donors. Roke will be the Harris Federation’s 21st acquisition(6).
The parents knew nothing of this until January 7th, when 200 of them were informed at a meeting with the governors. They rejected the Harris Federation’s sponsorship almost unanimously, in favour of a partnership with the local secondary school(7).
The local MP appealed to the schools minister Lord Nash, who happens to be another very rich businessman, major Tory donor and sponsor of academies. He replied last month: the decision is irreversible – Harris will run the school(8). But there will now be a “formal consultation” about it. He did not explain what the parents would be consulted about: the colour of the lampshades? Oh, and the body which will conduct the “consultation” is … the Harris Federation(9). There is no mechanism for appeal. The parents feel they have been carpet-bombed.
Similar stories are being told up and down the country. Academy brokers hired by the department roam the land like mediaeval tax collectors, threatening and cajoling governors and head teachers, trying to force them into liaisons with corporate sponsors(10). Far from targeting failing schools, they often seem to pick on good schools that run into temporary difficulties. When standards rise again, the sponsors can take credit for it, and the “turnaround” can be claimed as another success. Ofsted is widely suspected of colluding in this process(11).
Where threats don’t work, the department resorts to bribery. Schools are being offered sweeteners of up to £65,000 of state money to convert(12). Vast resources are being poured by the education secretary, Michael Gove, into the academies programme, which has exceeded its budget by £1bn over the past two years(13). We are being pushed towards the policy buried on page 52 of the department’s white paper: “it is our ambition that academy status should be the norm for all state schools”(14).
Is this a prelude to privatisation? A leaked memo from the department recommends “reclassifying academies to the private sector”(15). Just as Conservative health secretaries have done to the NHS, Michael Gove has published misleading statistics about our schools, to create the impression that they are failing by international standards(16). They are not(17).
Neither truth nor principle stands in the way of this demolition programme. All the promises of the market fundamentalists – choice, competitive tendering, decentralisation and savings – are abandoned in favour of brutal and extravagant dictat. Thus the government creates a novelty: a capitalist command economy.
1. Department for Education, November 2010. Schools White Paper: the Importance
of Teaching, page 74. https://www.education.gov.uk/publications/standard/publicationDetail/Page1/CM%207980
3. Malcolm Farquharson, chair of governors, 7th January 2013. Transcript of meeting between governors and parents of Roke School. See also:
5. Malcolm Farquharson, as above.
14. Department for Education, November 2010. Schools White Paper: the Importance
of Teaching, page 52. https://www.education.gov.uk/publications/standard/publicationDetail/Page1/CM%207980