‘Last week the education secretary, Michael Gove, gave the green light to Breckland Middle School in Suffolk to be renamed IES Breckland and run under a £21m, 10-year contract by Swedish for-profit firm Internationella Engelska Skolan (IES). The introduction of a profit-seeking company into the management of the school is allowed because of a technicality: the founder of the school is a charitable trust that has decided to outsource the entirety of the management to a fee-charging company – whose global business has a turnover of £60m a year, earning profits of £5m, according to analysis by the Adam Smith Institute. The development is set to open the floodgates. Today the Observer can reveal that for-profit firms, encouraged by what is happening at Breckland, now plan to run more schools in what promises to be a watershed in British education.’
The government body responsible for the public funding of universities, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), is cutting 80 percent of its teaching grant for universities and replacing it with income from tuition fees. The remaining 20 percent will be ring-fenced for four priority subject areas, referred to as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). In other words, the teaching of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences in universities will no longer receive state funding after 2014-15, forcing these departments to follow a market logic: degrees in these subjects can continue to be issued as long as there are enough students willing to pay high enough fees. This is a significant change in the ethos of education. Instead of giving funding directly to universities to administer as these institutions wish, the government will lend money to students to ‘invest’ in a course (and their own career), which they will pay back, with interest, over the course of 25-30 years, according to each graduate’s level of income.
There are two main points here: first, an attack on the humanities (and the critical thinking they stand for), and second, the privatization of education, which is no longer considered a democratic right and a channel for social mobility.
With less time devoted to their subject, and potentially fewer pupils and funding, there are fears about job losses in non-EBac subjects. A third of calls to the 24-hour helpline in March run by heads’ union the ASCL were related to redundancies in general, with some headteachers planning to make a fifth of their staff redundant. The ASCL has warned that EBac staff could be first in the firing line. “If there is going to be a shift in the curriculum because of the English Baccalaureate, it will quite likely cause restructuring and inevitably create redundancies,” says Richard Bird, the ASCL’s legal consultant.
Ms Kirby may have reason to be concerned. Although it was only introduced in November, the EBac has already contributed to a fall in recruitment for non-EBac subjects. There was a 48 per cent drop in adverts for D&T teachers between February 2010 and 2011, and a 54 per cent fall in adverts for ICT teachers. For music, drama and religion, there was a 36 per cent drop, and the number of adverts for art teachers fell by 33 per cent. During the same period, adverts for modern foreign languages teachers, one of the five core EBac subjects, fell by only one per cent.
"The Institute of Education welcomes the opportunity to consider the potential benefits of an English Baccalaureate; we're surprised by the omission of certain subjects which currently form an important part of the curriculum" says Professor Graham Welch. The recent White Paper confirms the government's commitment to 'a broad range of academic subjects to age 16', but makes no reference to many of the subjects successfully studied in schools, particularly the Arts. Of the 4.9 million GCSE qualifications passed last summer, 1.4 million were in subjects not related to the proposed Baccalaureate, such as music, the visual arts, design-related subjects and religious education.
I said: "The EBac doesn't include the arts. I find that inconceivable. I was speaking to a minister who said he thought the arts were really important in every child's education - so (I asked), 'Why aren't they in the EBac if they are so important?' He replied that schools have 40 per cent of curriculum time in which to teach the arts. "But I said the EBac sets out what you think is important - and schools are beginning to act on that."
Berfrois: What can the (British) Left do then to combat academies, free schools and their ilk?
Benn: Well, it’s a big debate at the moment. There are those who are campaigning on the ground, particularly against the undemocratic nature of conversion, and in particular the speed and lack of consultation. These struggles are happening around the country: parent groups and teachers are outraged at the way their schools are being passed over to ‘other providers’ almost overnight. I have just been emailed about a demonstration taking place in a Yorkshire town tomorrow over plans to convert a popular local comprehensive into an academy. This sort of thing is happening all the time.
Others are trying to make the argument at a national level, and I suppose I come into that group. In many ways, I feel I am trying, in the first instance, to explain to people what Michael Gove’s “quiet revolution” really means: the transfer of public monies from local authorities to stand-alone schools, the increasing role of the big educational chains, and the lack of transparency in many aspects of the governance of academies and free schools. Each one is governed by a separate funding contract with the government, and it has recently been announced that some free schools can vary their admissions arrangements but we don’t know what those variations are. It’s a highly complex and increasingly undemocratic mess.
Of course, then there is the quite alarming government silence around so many excellent comprehensive or community schools. This government is only interested in the ‘new model’ school, that’s quite clear, and there’s a clear parallel here with what is happening the USA where official or corporate support for charter schools is eating away at the idea of quality public (state) education. In my worst moments, I think that’s part of the government’s plan, to make the whole system so divided and so complex that no one can get a handle on it, let alone begin to influence it.
But there is another conversation starting up, with an eye possible, to a future Labour administration or – who knows – a more progressive coalition. Here, the debate is: how could we bring schools back to some kind of local, meaningful accountability and collaboration while honouring the autonomy necessary to get on and do the job? It is interesting, actually, to look back at the administrative terms of the 1944 settlement. Leaving aside the damaging grammar/secondary modern divide, there was a lot of sense in this arrangement: government made the few, big decisions; local authorities were responsible for organisational aspects regarding groups of schools in their areas; and individual schools were left to get on with the job of teaching and learning according to their diverse school populations. We will have to return to such a model sometime in the future, with a local layer responsible for the key question of equity of access, the single most important issue not yet properly tackled, in our school system. You simply can’t have Whitehall directly responsible for 20,000 separate schools. Chaos would ensue!’
Headteachers across England, it seems, are furious. And Ron Munson, head of Taverham high school, in Norwich, is among them. "I really do not understand what the government is doing. And why is it doing it retrospectively, without having carried out any consultation, and without having published detailed plans beforehand?" he says. The object of his ire is the "English baccalaureate" (Ebac), a new GCSE performance measure, being introduced in school league tables to be published tomorrow. Announced formally only seven weeks ago in the government's schools white paper, this will rank schools on the proportion of their pupils achieving A*-C passes in five subject areas specified by ministers: English; maths; two sciences; ancient or modern history or geography; and a modern or ancient language. In future, pupils will achieve certificates rewarding their performance on this measure, the government says.’