Campaigning for a better state education for all – Report of SERTUC and AAA conference 7th Feb 2015

If there was ever a time for a conference on ‘a better state education for all’ involving teachers and school support staff, parents, academics, trade unionists from the UK and abroad, campaigners and politicians it is now and earlier this month the South East Region TUC and the Anti Academies Alliance hosted such a conference. The list of speakers and contributors was impressive and included Professor Gus John, Linda Norrby from Sweden’s largest teacher trade union, parents and teachers from the successful Hands Off Hove Park campaign, academics from the University of Brighton, Kevin Courtney (NUT) and Mary Bousted (ATL), Natalie Bennett (Green Party leader), Jonathan Simons from the Policy Exchange and Zoe Williams from The Guardian. Since the New Year, the wheels have come off the government’s education policies. We now know that £12.6 million was used to bail out 22 academies including the Pimlico Academy set up by Lord Nash – an unelected schools minister and Conservative party sponsor  – and an academy sponsored by the Aldridge Foundation. We’ve seen another free school collapse and learnt that the head of the Durand Academy was benefiting by almost £400,000 a year by running a private business on the school’s site as well as taking a salary. And this is the head who forced the opening of an academy boarding school in Sussex against the opposition of the local community and politicians and an independent expert.

In Westminster, the cross party Education Select Committee called on the government to stop exaggerating the success of academies and be more open about how the academy programme is run. The Committee found that although academisation leads to greater competition there is no proof that academies raise standards for disadvantaged children or overall. This all but echoed the views of Ofsted’s Chief Inspector who, in December, said that struggling schools were no better off as academies. The Education Committee report appeared around the same time as reports from the Public Accounts Committee, the National Audit Office and Local Government Association. The first concluded that the DfE does not know enough about the effectiveness of academy sponsors, the second issued an “adverse opinion” on the DfE’s financial accounts, stating they were “not true and fair” and the third reported the need for an additional 900,000 school places.

Meanwhile, in Sussex, the Ark academy chain announced cuts of up to 64 jobs at two Hastings academies and the head of Hove Park School who had tried, and failed, to force the school to become an academy left his post. And, with the projected closure of children’s centres in Brighton & Hove and the tearing up of the contracts of East Sussex early years teachers we have seen the consequences for child care and education of a government determined to push through its austerity agenda .

One of the first speakers at the conference was Professor Gus John who spoke passionately and forcible of the damage current education policies have done to inclusive education. Seventy percent of the 9,000 school exclusions are black males – with attempts to justify these exclusions too often based on crass, not to say racist, assumptions about hair style and uniform. This exclusion amounts to the criminalisation of school pupils that Gus compared to the treatment of those, in colonial times, turned off plantations.

Many contributions, during the day, resonated with findings of the Education Select Committee. A recently retired and experienced head teacher explained how the academy model of leadership forces head teachers away from the pastoral responsibilities for the well being of pupils. Kevin Courtney likened the continued search for positive evidence of the impact of academies with the search for evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq: if after ten years we still can’t find it perhaps we should accept it’s not there! A number of contributors compared the lack of success of the academies programme (costing more than £8 billion) with the successful London Challenge model that cost only £160 million (and is now being considered for use in Scotland) but was cancelled by this government.

Teachers described how a combination of increased workload and an oppressive Ofsted regime distorted children’s education and strangled the freedom of teachers to respond to children’s needs. The loudest applause of the day came when speakers from a variety of political perspectives agreed that Ofsted was simply not fit for purpose. Instead of providing constructive advice and support from experienced, expert and respected teachers, it dictates to schools, undermines the accountability of schools to their governing bodies and communities and increases pressure on children and teachers. So the statistic that there is a ten year high in the number of teachers leaving the profession with 25% of teachers leaving since 2010 was alarming but was understood. Alternative and practical proposals on reducing teacher workload and reforming Ofsted are apparent but we need a government prepared, or forced, to listen.

In a workshop, on valuing and building the role of all staff, Rachel Harrison, a GMB organiser, and Nadia Edmond, a teacher educator from the University of Brighton, emphasised the need for teachers and others employed in school to make common cause in defending the employment conditions of all staff in schools. To paraphrase a slogan from the student protests: The conditions school staff work in are the conditions pupils learn in.

In another workshop on ‘what should we teach our children’ John Bolt from the SEA and Kevin Courtney explored ideas around a ‘broad and balanced curriculum’. Too many schools are now exempt from the national curriculum which leads to questions about its purpose and scope for all children. The workshop highlighted further dilemmas created by a curriculum that is vulnerable to political interference and driven by ideology, citing the current obsession with phonics. Workshop attendees agreed that the curriculum has been reduced to a narrow focus on facts with little scope for children to develop creative, independent thought – and then steeped in testing!

The theme of accountability and democracy ran through the discussions. Ministers often evoke ‘freedoms’ as the rationale for and academy and free school policies. Yet the illogicality of this argument was exposed when Jonathan Simons from the Policy Exchange proposed that teachers should have the freedom to run schools (good) but that the vehicle for this freedom was the academy! Teachers working for schools run by Ark, Harris, Aldridge, or at other academy chains, or at schools where academy conversion had been driven through in the face of opposition from staff (and parents) might be flummoxed by this non sequitur. Contributors also pointed to the evidence of financial mismanagement, incompetence and, in some case, near corruption that litters the history of academies. Others pointed to the undermining of governance by DfE proposals to reduce the number of elected parents and staff on governing bodies. As some contributors put it: Any freedom espoused by ministers needs to include the freedom not to become an academy and the freedom to return a failing academy to a local authority.

Nor was the conference slow to identify ways to establish real systems of democratic accountability. Martin Powell Davis, from the NUT National Executive Committee, speculated on the strengths of locally elected school boards and a member of the closing question time panel wondered if schools would be more accountable if head teachers were elected from staff. Perhaps surprisingly, given that the panel included individuals from the NUT, the Green Party, the Anti Academies Alliance and the Policy Exchange, there was unanimity across the afternoon’s Question Time panel that any academy conversion should be preceded by a parental ballot!

The reasoning behind the academy programme was a key issue for debate. The audience seemed rather less than convinced by a proposition that academies were needed because they worked: largely because the evidence is increasingly that they don’t! Nor was there any confidence that academies have helped improve achievement. One speaker pointed to the fact that child poverty is a major determinant of educational achievement (rather than the status of the school) yet the government seems unwilling to take measures to even halt the rise in child poverty (let alone reverse it). Natalie Bennett compared the refusal of government to countenance an alternative to the academy programme with their refusal to listen to the overwhelming views of people who want a renationalisation of the railways or a reverse to the privatisation, by stealth, of the NHS.

Earlier in the day, a teaching assistant speaking on behalf of the GMB advocated calling ‘academisation’ what it really is – ‘privatisation’. Interestingly, the way in which privatisation displaces the rhetoric of freedom and standards and leads to profit was illustrated by the speaker from Sweden. She mentioned the IEB free school in Suffolk: a free school run for profit by a Swedish company but unable to meet the needs of its pupils with high quality teaching. As a number of speakers pointed out: the rationale for the alleged (but discredited) ‘reforms’ of the last ten years, or more, can be found in the Global Education Reform Movement – eloquently described and analysed by Pasi Sahlberg from Finland where teachers are highly trained and trusted and pupil achievement is high.

But the point of the conference was to find ways to bring about a better state education for all children and so it was encouraging to hear the Green party, alone among the parties with MPs, pledge to abolish SATs and and the Year 1 phonics test (as well as Ofsted) and give academies a way back to democratic local accountability. It was promising hear the leaders of the three biggest teacher unions agreeing on many of the changes that are needed – well summarised in the manifestos of the NUT and ATL – and on the ways in which the unions can work even more closely together. And of course it was inspirational to hear from the successful Hands off Hove Park campaign.

Those attending this conference learnt much and came back energised and encouraged by the discussion and the debate but we also returned even more certain that the future of our education system is in the balance. We must continue our campaign for a better state education for all – one that is comprehensive, inclusive and provides high quality learning for all children of all ages. This requires us to continue to expose the paucity and contradictions of current policy; to defend teachers and staff who are treated by academy chains and Ofsted as the problem – rather than allowed to be part of the solution – and to support parents and communities to decide what’s best for their children and their schools.

Please join us in this campaign.

Nadia Edmond and Erica Evans


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