Wednesday, 16 March 2016

What price education? It depends who's buying

The principle of schools and colleges collaborating in a learning network is a good one - but forcing schools to become academies is not the way to do it.

Today, Chancellor George Osborne is due to announce that all schools within England and Wales will become academies, whether they like it or not, by 2020. Quite why the Chancellor and not the Secretary of State for Education is announcing this seems a puzzle - until you realise that, once again, education is the thematic football of choice for those players vying to big up their political game. As an educator, I personally find it deeply frustrating when politicians with no knowledge of pedagogy or educational theory make broad announcements that will have a profound effect on the lives of everyone for years to come.
the image the government projects....


The last truly effective changes were, in my opinion, the Education Reform Act of 1988 under Kenneth Clarke - this lead to, among other things, the expansion of Higher Education and a generally successful reappraisal of the syllabus. Unfortunately, it all went pear-shaped after that. The Labour government couldn't help itself and began tinkering away, leading to the development of the first academy schools, the idea being that educational institutions that were centrally funded but free from local authority control would be more successful.
The reality? No, it's not QUITE that bad. Yet.


Then along came Michael Gove.

I know many people in the profession, all the way up to some of the most senior postholders, who have heart palpitations at the very mention of his name. In a nutshell, Mr Gove's policy appears to have been that a) all schools should be modelled on his own, rather mediocre, grammar school, except for b) schools that anyone could apply to open and were based on a now-discredited Scandinavian educational model.

The result, frankly, has been chaos: Money has been diverted away from local authority-controlled institutions to the new Free Schools, and even these have not been handled well. Laura McInerny's three-year attempt to get data on the selection process, which saw her end up in court, eventually revealed glaring inconsistencies in the way in which free schools received the go ahead.

And now we come to this - all schools will be academies. So, is this a good thing or not?
In some respects, the principle itself isn't bad - give educational establishments greater autonomy, goes the reasoning, and they will be able to provide an education that focuses more on the needs of the local population, or provide a syllabus with a focus on a specific subject - you could have one school with a more technical focus and another that aims to provide a more arts-based syllabus, for example. The government also wants academies to work in local groups, sharing best practice between teachers to ensure that each area has a network of pedagogical excellence. Again, I can't argue with that, except to say that it's not strictly necessary - most teachers I know are a pretty generous bunch and quite happy to share their ideas.

But here's where it goes all wrong. Horribly, terribly, wrong. The principle is not protected from the vicissitudes of the market - and peddling education as if it was just another product to be bought and sold is a grave error. In fact, the ground has been prepared for several years, but the introduction of the Academy Chain.

Academy Chains are simply controlling companies that run a group of schools. They often have exciting names, the kind we often associate with the team names that contestants on The Apprentice come up with.

Excelsior. The Excellence Trust. Bright Tribe. Communic8. And so on. Their strategic visions are virtually identical - 'providing excellence in education', 'encouraging the community to be active stakeholders', 'developing the minds of the future', 'sloganising active verbs', and so forth. The issue is that these companies are run, not by educators, but by business interests - and if it is good business to do so, then schools are sold off to the highest bidder. Let me be clear on this: There are NO safeguards in place to prevent this. The school, its staff and its pupils are sold as a commodity.

So, who's buying them? I'm just going to take a detour for a moment to talk about book sales and the generosity of teachers, then I'll come back to this question.

With the rise of the internet and ebooks, it should come as no surprise that sales of physical books have declined - nowhere more so than in the field of educational textbooks. Not only do publishers have to put up with blatant pirate copying of their materials globally, but they are also threatened by the rise of self-publishing and, horror of horrors, materials created by teachers and placed for free on learning websites. I imagine the creation of the Khan academy and the rise of MOOCs had many publishing executives wondering whether to jack it all in and go live in the forest.

However, the big educational publishing companies, such as Kaplan and Pearson have been strategising over this for well over a decade. Their reaction has been twofold: first, create a closed system of related products and services for which premium prices are charged, and second, start buying up schools. It's been the only way in which they could survive as publishers.

So, our academies of today and tomorrow are and will be bought by other academy chains which are themselves held by larger business interests, or by publishing houses directly, who increasingly represent themselves as Education Providers. And these publishers will still be aggressively pursuing schools to use their products exclusively, in effect creating regions where they have a monopoly on the provision of materials.

Just think about that for a moment: They will be able to charge you, the parent of a child going to that school, whatever they like for their textbooks and access to their online materials and resources, and you won't be able to do a single thing about it, apart from move your child to another school - where you'll probably face the same problem!

The current government, and indeed , the previous Labour administration, state that academy schools 'offer greater choice', as if you can get your child educated wherever you like. Just a moment's consideration will reveal that for the absurd lie that it is. It is a very good example, in fact, of how principles tend to get completely buggered up when they come face to face with reality. I'll leave aside for the moment the data that suggests that Academy chains perform no better than schools under local authority control.

OK, so what can be done? It's no use just bemoaning what is happening without presenting an alternative or a way forward. This is going to happen anyway, and I get the impression that a future Labour administration wouldn't have changing academies back as its top policy. So, just three things here, but I could go on:

1) Petition government to ensure that safeguards are in place to protect educational establishments. Education, like health, is a closed, finite system - it simply does not thrive when treated like a market commodity

2) Academy chains should remain under local authority control. This will not only ensure that minimum educational standards are met, but that core syllabus requirements are not ignored. It also means that the government's own Safeguarding measures are more likely to be adhered to - we do to want to see more 'Trojan Horse' issues as happened in Birmingham.

3) Where publishing houses own chains directly, they are required by law to be open to tenders for pedagogical materials from other companies. This doesn't address the issue of academies, but it will mitigate silghtly the financial impact that this system will have on the poorest families.

As a final point, I'll say this - converting schools to academies will not save the taxpayer a single penny, and in fact it'll probably end up costing us more: several chains have already asked for central government money and it is clear that many free schools have very weak business and syllabus plans in place.
So, what price education? You decide.

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