US school privatisation – a glimpse of our future?

The current issue of the New York Review of Books has a long review by Diane Ravitch of two recent books  on school privatisation. The review provides a stark warning about the consequences of turning locally run schools into state-funded independent institutions. The first paragraph of the article sets a chilling scene.

The New York Times recently published a series of articles about the dangers of privatizing public services, the first of which was called “When You Dial 911 and Wall Street Answers.” Over the years, the Times has published other exposés of privatized services, like hospitals, health care, prisons, ambulances, and preschools for children with disabilities. In some cities and states, even libraries and water have been privatized. No public service is immune from takeover by corporations that say they can provide comparable or better quality at a lower cost. The New York Times said that since the 2008 financial crisis, private equity firms “have increasingly taken over a wide array of civic and financial services that are central to American life.”

Donald Trump backs privatising the nation’s public schools. He said that he would turn $20 billion of existing federal education expenditures into grants which states can use for vouchers for religious schools, charter schools, private schools, or public schools. Unsurprisingly, he sees choice and competition as drivers of school improvement.

About half the US states have enacted voucher legislation or tax credits for non-public schools, even though in some of those states, like Indiana and Nevada, the state constitution explicitly forbids spending state funds on religious schools or anything other than public schools.

The ideological pressure for privatisation comes from conservative ideologues and institutions. But that said, the scope of their thinking goes well beyond their immediate circles (sounds familiar?). The Obama administration has been enthusiastic about privately managed charter schools. In 2009, its Race to the Top programme offered a $4.35 billion  prize that states could compete for. To be eligible, states had to change their laws to allow or increase the number of charter schools, and they had to agree to close public schools that had persistently low test scores.

In response to pressure from the Obama administration, forty-two states and the District of Columbia currently permit charter schools. Thousands of neighbourhood schools have closed to be replaced by charter schools. There are about seven thousand publicly funded, privately managed charter schools, enrolling nearly three million students. Some are run for profit. Some are online schools, where students sit at home and get their lessons on a computer. Some operate in shopping malls. Some are run by fly-by-night characters hoping to make money. From 2010 to 2015, more than 1,200 charters closed due to academic or financial difficulties.

Powerful private interests are at work in promoting the privatisation program but there are signs of resistance to the trend. Bill Gates spent money to promote charter legislation in his home state of Washington. When three state referenda failed support charter schools a fourth was held which favoured them with a margin of 1.5%. However, the state’s highest court ruled that charter schools are not public schools because their boards are not elected. So in the recent election, Gates and his allies supported opponents who ran against the justices who were responsible for that decision. The voters were not convinced and so re-elected them.

One of the books reviewed by Ravitch (Education and the Commercial Mindset by Samuel E. Abrams) considers the experience of Sweden and Chile, which embraced school privatization under conservative leadership. In both countries school performance declined, and segregation by race, class, religion, and income grew. The result of school choice was not increased school quality but increased social inequity. Abrams says that Finland, which has rejected the choice/competition approach, has, on the other hand, produced excellent schools and highly respected educational outcomes for its pupils.

The other book reviewed (School Choice: The End of Public Education? by Mercedes K. Schneider) Considers the history of the idea of school choice starting with economist Milton Friedman’s 1955 essay advocating school vouchers. Schneider shows how the idea was taken up by southern conservatives as a way of evading desegregation legislation. He details the encouragement given to the charter school industry by Presidents Bush and Obama as well as the millions poured in by private foundations such as those of Gates and Wallmart. The scope for for-profit educational business has expanded enormously and with so little in the way of checks and controls that high levels of fraud and graft are the inevitable result.

Investors in charter school construction can receive a 39 percent federal tax credit over seven years. Foreign investors in charter schools can get privileged access permanent resident status for themselves and their families by investing in charter schools. Charter operators have developed a neat trick in which they buy a building, lease it to themselves at high rentals, and get rich from their real estate. Former tennis star Andre Agassi joined with an equity investor to build and open charter schools across the country, even though the Las Vegas charter school that bears his name is one of the lowest-performing schools in Nevada.

Diane Ravitch concludes her review with a positive note about what she sees as growing resistance to the privatising programme.

As the recent state election returns in Massachusetts, Georgia, and Washington State suggest, the tide may be turning against privatization as the public recognizes what is at stake. The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People helped to promote resistance with its call in October for a moratorium on new charter schools until they are held to the same standards of transparency and accountability as public schools, until they stop expelling the students that public schools are required to educate, until they stop segregating the highest-performing students from others, and until “public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the public school system.”


Does anyone want the Isle of Portland Academy?

The story of the Isle of Portland Aldridge Academy is one that illustrates many of the dubious features of academy sponsorship. This academy is an all through school formed in 2012 as an amalgamation of four primary schools and one secondary school. It was sponsored by the Aldridge Foundation and Dorset County Council.

The Aldridge Academies Trust was founded by Rod Aldridge of Capita. In addition to the Isle of Portland, it currently has four schools in Darwen, Lancashire, two in Brighton and one in North Kensington. It is planning to open two UTC’s in Salford and Newhaven and is responsible for the National College for Digital Skills in Tottenham.

In 2014, the Isle of Portland was rated good by Ofsted. Since then however things have gone downhill rapidly. Results have dropped sharply and the financial situation of the academy has become critical. It’s under a Financial Notice to Improve, owes £520k to the government and has made 21 redundancies. Part of the background to this was the delay in uniting the school on a single site.

The plan was for the school to become a full member of the Aldridge multi-academy trust – up to now it’s been a single academy trust with Aldridge as one of the trust sponsors. This is a subtle but significant distinction – it means the MAT doesn’t control staffing and can’t use its other resources to support the school financially. Joining the MAT though was not popular – 1000- parents signed a petition opposing it and the chair and vice chair resigned. But of course these days, local people’s views count for very little.

However this plan has fallen through – Aldridge has withdrawn from any involvement and the Regional Commissioner is stuck with trying to find a new sponsor for a school in very significant difficulties.

So what can we learn from this story –

First we need to ask what possible coherence there can be for a smallish trust with schools spread the length and breadth of the country. The government’s vision for MATs is that they foster collaboration and the sharing of best practice. They are meant to nurture talented staff and spread them across their schools. You would expect the trust’s central staff to be engaging regularly with the schools – especially those in difficulties. It’s hard to see how any of this can happen in such a disparate organisation. The trust actually recognised that the isolation of Portland from the rest of the trust was a problem but it’s equally hard to see how Kensington, Darwen and Brighton add much value to each other.

Secondly, the MAT has taken the decision to withdraw based entirely on its own interests. Portland comes with a big debt which would fall to the trust to sort out. It knows sorting out the educational issues of this isolated school would be very hard – and it’s not wrong about that. The point is here that this is a decision taken by a private business – no one started by asking what does this school need. It’s a school that comes with issues so no one wants it. A local authority doesn’t have that choice – it can’t walk away from any of its schools. It’s the fundamental difference between the public interest and the private interests of a trust.

It’s important to recognise that Aldridge is not one of the cowboy trusts that so disfigure the educational landscape. It’s had its successes and there’s no sign of the bad financial behaviour seen in too many MAT’s. But in a sense, that makes this issue all the more important. This is what even the best trusts are expected to do – to make decisions according to their corporate interests.

We have had cases elsewhere in which the government has effectively bribed trusts to take on tricky situations. But as we go forward there will be many cases where schools are not attractive to sponsors – small schools that are potentially unviable, those with PFI debts or falling rolls or just endemic low performance. Getting a market place made up of private businesses to take on schools where it’s not in their interests to do so will be a huge issue.

Fundamentally this story reminds us that there is a basic contradiction between the equitable delivery of public services and the interests of private business. Until this is sorted, more and more schools will be at the mercy of unpredictable market forces with serious consequences for staff and students alike.


How many poor kids get into grammar schools is not the issue – we don’t need more divisions and segregation in our society

It would be fair to say that the decision of Theresa May to launch her premiership with calls for more selection and more faith based schooling have left the education world reeling. As yet it is not at all easy to see just what will be proposed. We’re told it won’t be a return to a simple “binary pass/fail world”. It will be a modernised 21st century form of selection – while of course still harvesting the nostalgia of many for the grammar schools of old.

It’s pretty hard to see how selection involves anything other than passing or failing. No doubt there will be attempts to make non selective schools more acceptable and the issue will be further confused by the multiplicity of different kinds of school – probably even more than we have now. For example, it seems selective schools may have to sponsor or support non selective ones. How this makes rejection from the grammar school any more palatable is hard to see.

Much of the debate has focussed around who will get into grammar schools. We know what happens now – hardly any free meal pupils get in to most grammar schools. In a few cases there has been a genuine attempt to address this.

But to focus the debate on who gets in is to miss the most fundamental issue. If every grammar school took 20% pupils on free meals, it would still be a system unfit for the 21st century. If we could design a perfect selection system that never made a mistake, it would still be the wrong thing to do. Although we can take issue with the distorted curriculum of EBacc, the ambition that says every child is entitled to all the opportunities we can offer and no one should have to put up with second rate is surely right.

The Tory vision of social mobility, as expounded by May, has always been about rescuing and promoting a few of the deserving poor while leaving the rest behind. That cannot be the Labour vision. We need to stand firm behind the principle that says not just that opportunity is for all but that we will not be satisfied until all the gaps in achievement have been closed.

The big issue in English education has not been getting high achievement at the top. It’s been the depressingly long tail of underachievement that denies young people opportunity and also holds back our society and our economy. This of course is increasingly concentrated amongst particular parts of the country and particular ethnic and social groups.

The divisions in our society are real and alarming. They are based around class, geography, race and religion in varying combinations. To enhance these divisions by building in more segregation into the education system is surely folly. Too many people feel left out already – the referendum showed that so clearly. To go out of our way to find another way of rejecting children and telling them they’ve missed out at age 11 is folly of the most extreme kind. To encourage the dividing up of children on religious grounds is not just folly – it’s seriously dangerous.

So let’s not get bogged down in a debate about how many poor kids scrape into selective schools. Let’s hang on to fundamental beliefs in inclusion and about the value of a common educational experience in which all kinds of young people learn to live and work together.


Achieving social mobility is hard – schools can’t do it on their own

At the recent Teach First conference (https://www.teachfirst.org.uk/press/alan-milburn-calls-social-mobility-tests-education-policy) Alan Milburn – our social mobility Tsar – claimed that “it will be impossible to make progress in improving social mobility until the educational attainment gap between less well-off and better-off children is closed. Our future success in a globally competitive economy relies on using all of our country’s talent not just some of it.”

Now no one would deny that the gap between the educational performance of disadvantaged pupils and the rest is unacceptable. One of the most noticeable features of English education when compared with other countries is our long tail of underachievement.

But his analysis breaks down in two ways. First, his proposals for closing the gap assume that it can be done by a bit more tinkering with the educational system. A new performance measure. Sack a few more heads. Let a few teachers off their student loans. Set a new target and give Ofsted something new to beat schools up over.

Some of these proposals are extraordinarily muddled – so for example

Scrap tuition fees for teacher training and provide housing support for existing teachers who work in the worst schools in disadvantaged areas. If these are really the worst schools, why would we want to keep and reward the current teachers? Or is “worst” really a synonym for disadvantaged. If so it is really saying something worrying about his assumptions.

The lowest performing 20% of schools to be given intensive support or have wholesale change in leadership if they continue to fail. Unfortunately basic maths says there will always be a lowest performing 20%. Improve some and others will fall into the 20%. And anyway, by what measure will the 20% be identified – something that has baffled educational statisticians for many years.

There is nothing here about educational fundamentals – nothing about the crisis in teacher supply or in teacher morale. Or about the disastrous testing and exam regime imposed by Gove and Morgan. Or about the socially selective admissions system that you find in much of the country. Or about the continued existence of the privileged private school sector.

But even more importantly, he totally ignores issues in our wider society outside education. Nothing about poverty wages, insecure employment, inadequate housing, food banks and all the rest. If children have parents who are seeing their living standards driven down as an act of deliberate policy, they are not likely “to be ready to compete in the modern labour market”.

To pretend that fiddling with school performance measures will counter-balance all this is frankly disgraceful – a cynic would say it’s simply a way of avoiding having to think about what inequality is really like in our country.

There is however an even more fundamental issue. According to Milburn, education is meant to bring about social mobility. This assumption demonstrates a fundamental failure to understand how social mobility works – or doesn’t.

There are basically two ways in which social mobility can work. Sometimes – as in the 1950’s and 1960’s – there is structural change in the labour market which opens up opportunities for some people to move into a different kind of job from their families. The expansion of higher education created opportunities that had not been there before in order to provide the growing demand for professional and “white collar” employment. But there is much less of this in today’s labour market, especially where “middling” craft and admin jobs are increasingly disappearing.

The second way is if there is movement both up and down the class system – a genuine meritocracy. Social mobility is not just about moving up – it has to involve going down too. Making this happen is incredibly difficult. The already privileged have very many ways of making sure that it will not be their children who move down.

Achieving a meritocracy is made harder in our society by the extraordinarily unequal rewards offered for different jobs. For a child from a professional family to move into a non-professional job involves a huge hit in potential income and even more in social status. We don’t value trade and craft skills. And anyone working in an unskilled job can expect insecurity and bullying at a wage that can’t support a family. If this is what downward mobility looks like, don’t expect to see it happen any time soon.

So, no, social mobility will not be brought about by tinkering with the performance tables or by blaming schools in disadvantaged areas for supposed failure. Genuine educational reform can make a dent in the issue and can enable more young people to have some better opportunities. But in the end real social mobility will only happen if we have a more equal society which really values every kind of work and contribution.

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Education needs a fresh start from May- time to clear up the DfE’s mess

The last month has seen events in British politics move at a pace that is probably unprecedented. At times just keeping up has felt like a full time occupation. So this blog has been rather quiet as other issues have taken priority.

But as we approach the formation of a new government, it is an appropriate moment to look at the DfE agenda and perhaps identify some things that current ministers have mismanaged or ignored and which new ministers (if that is what we get) need to pay attention to.

It so happens that in the last few days, a number of issues have been brought into sharp perspective through the publication of research and through just the press of events:

Academisation:

There have been three reports on the performance of multi-academy trusts. They come from the DfE itself, the Sutton Trust and the Education Policy Institute (chaired by Lib Dem ex minister David Laws). They agree that at the very least MATs are no more effective than local authorities. A few are effective – as Sir Michael Wilshaw told the Select Committee, he could find half a dozen good ones – but no more. It’s clear than many trusts are not effective. The EPI’s first recommendation is very straightforward – “ditch full academisation as a policy in favour of ensuring all pupils are in a good school”.

At the same time, another of Gove’s superheads bit the dust. Durand Trust received a notice threatening termination unless it sorted out the massive conflicts of interest in its structure. In particular its founder, Greg Martin, is required to sever all links with the trust and its schools. Durand’s reaction – it is seeking legal advice!

Teacher Shortages

TheTeachers’ Pay Review body’s report – massively overdue – has highlighted the growing crisis in teacher recruitment and retention. It told ministers that they must be prepared to pay teachers more in future years recognising a continuing decline in teachers’ earnings compared to other professions.

At the same time the workforce census data showed 10% of teachers leaving the profession last year and almost a quarter leaving within three years of qualifying. The latter is the worst figure since records began in 1996.

Testing

The first results of KS2 tests under the new curriculum and testing arrangements were published. Just 53% of pupils reached the expected standard. So almost half the population have been labelled as failures at age 11. And to rub it in, one outcome is that many thousands of pupils will start their secondary school career faced with re-taking their KS2 tests. It is hard to imagine anything more likely to cause disillusionment at just the time when pupils should be excited by the new opportunities opening up in secondary school.

EBacc

A petition regretting the exclusion of arts and technology subjects from the EBacc was debated in Westminster Hall. The crisis in design and technology was a particular feature with just 40% of teacher training places being taken up. When asked to justify the privileged position of history and geography, Nick Gibb responded that “we believe it is important that young people learn the skills of writing essays”.

The new Chief Inspector

The nominee for the post of HMCI, Amanda Spielman, suffered the unusual fate of being rejected by the Education Select Committee. Nicky Morgan has said she will override this decision. A lot of the great and good have rallied round emphasising her management qualities and arguing that she would be very different from Wilshaw. The committee was accused of hankering after a male and macho style of leadership.

It is true that to have a numerate Chief Inspector and one less inclined to give vent to personal prejudices would be no bad thing. But we are asked to have an HMCI who would not be qualified to participate herself in an inspection in any part of her sprawling empire. The tone of her session at the select committee was set by her first answer:

Chair: “Why do you want to be Her Majesty’s chief inspector?”

Amanda Spielman:  “Why? It is a bit of a “mountain” answer: because it’s there. It is something that is incredibly important in the system and that cannot be approached  simplistically. It is not a routine thing that you simply have to point in a certain direction and off it goes. It needs understanding of education; understanding of large and complex systems and how they evolve and need to be steered over time; understanding of Government and the pressures on Government; and understanding a big and complex profession. It brings it all together in a very exciting way. It is a challenge that I couldn’t resist.”

I don’t think it’s asking too much to think that the answer could have included something about making a difference for children. Frankly you’d expect better from a candidate for a head of department job in a school. And in this case it didn’t get better. But she’s probably going to get the job unless a new Secretary of State takes a different view.

So there a lot of chickens coming home to roost. We can only hope that we will see some changes at the DfE and that a new team will recognise how much needs doing and how misguided much of current policy is.

But then we remember that Teresa May supported the proposal for a grammar school annex in her constituency of Maidenhead ……. groans ….

 

 


It’s time to phase out elitist education

The author of this piece, Steve Longden, is an experienced teacher and has worked as an Equality Policy manager in local government in Greater Manchester. He is a member of Altrincham and Sale CLP

A resolution based on this article will be debated at the SEA Annual Conference on 25th June. Details and booking arrangements can be found at https://socialisteducationalassociation.org/

Any right predicated on wealth should not be allowed to supersede the right to equality of opportunity

Much has been said in recent years about increasing inequality in the UK and the crucial role that improving state education has in addressing this problem. Far less has been said about actively addressing the inequalities sustained by private and grammar schools.

I am an experienced teacher, new Labour Party and NUT member. I intend to submit a policy proposal to the party, explaining why I believe private and grammar schools should be phased out. Any Labour Party members who would like to support the proposal are welcome to join this policy campaign group:

The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’s 2014 examination of who gets the top jobs in Britain today found ‘elitism so stark that it could be called ‘Social Engineering’’. Private schools, educating 7 per cent of the nation’s pupils, provide:

  • 71 per cent of senior judges
  • 62 per cent of senior armed forces officers
  • 55 per cent of permanent secretaries
  • 53 per cent of senior diplomats
  • 50 per cent of members of the House of Lords
  • 45 per cent of public body chairs
  • 44 per cent of the Sunday Times Rich List
  • 43 per cent of newspaper columnists
  • 36 per cent of the Cabinet
  • 35 per cent of the national rugby team
  • 33 per cent of MPs
  • 33 per cent of the England cricket team
  • 26 per cent of BBC executives and
  • 22 per cent of the Shadow Cabinet.

Furthermore, a disproportionate amount of UK government spending on schools goes to the private sector. For example, in 2009 the OECD revealed (through its routine statistical publications) that the UK diverted a larger share of government education spending (25.1 per cent) to a tiny proportion of privately educated children (7 per cent) than almost any other rich nation.

In the state sector, ‘less than 3 per cent of students attending grammar schools are eligible for free school meals, whereas the average proportion of pupils entitled to free school meals in selective areas is 18 per cent’.

This disparity is caused by wealthier parents pushing up house prices in the catchment areas of grammar schools, in an effort to increase the chances of their children gaining places. Grammar school head teachers point to the use of private tutors who coach children to pass entrance tests. Over four times as many children are admitted to grammar schools from the private school sector than children on free school meals.

In December 2015 the Commission reported that, ‘despite many welcome initiatives, the current policy response – by educators and employers as much as governments – falls well short of the political ambition. The gap between rhetoric and reality has to be closed’.

Unfortunately, by failing to address the inequity of private education in any of its policy recommendations the Commission has fallen short of addressing one of the greatest causes of social immobility and elitism in the nation.

Perhaps the British public’s love of ‘choice’ when deciding how to spend their hard earned money argues against the phasing out of private and grammar schools? These survey results suggest otherwise:

  • When asked in the 2010 British Social Attitudes Survey,’should the quality of education be the same for all children, or should parents who can afford it be able to pay for better education’, 61 per cent of respondents thought it should be the same for all children.
  • 2013 research by YouGov found that 78 per cent of the public in Great Britain thinks that ‘it should be the government’s job to ensure that rich and poor children have the same chances’.

The existence of private and grammar school social engineering is reason enough to phase them out. However, those who buy their services console themselves with arguments that help them to justify their continued use. The most common of these arguments are outlined and challenged here:

  • The state’s comprehensive system encourages mediocrity.
    Qualified teachers are fully aware of the importance of meeting the needs of each student in their classroom. The set of techniques employed by teachers to ensure this is called ‘differentiation’.  In order for a teacher in the state sector to be judged as ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ they must demonstrate their effective use, including stretching and challenging the most able students.
  • Abolishing private and grammar schools would mean the most affluent would simply create their own ‘elite’ within the state system.
    This very real phenomenon can be addressed by ensuring that any school judged ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted be required to reserve places equivalent to the percentage of students eligible for free school meals within their local authority. This would ensure that wealthier families moving into the catchment areas to access these schools would not prevent social mobility amongst the area’s poorest students.
  • What really matters is class size!
    In 2011 The Department for Education reported that the evidence base on the link between class size and attainment showed that a smaller class size did have a positive impact on attainment and behaviour in the early years of school. However, it also showed that this effect tends to be small, and diminishes after a few years. This finding is also supported by The Sutton Trust’s research on the effects of class size on pupil performance. Furthermore, Hattie (2009), Rivkin et al (2005) and Hanushek (2011) all argue that increasing teacher effectiveness creates much greater value for money than reducing class sizes.

After three decades of rising wealth inequalities and with clear evidence from the government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission about the negative impact private schools are having on social mobility, now is the time to expose the assumption that ‘choosing’ private education or using wealth to access schooling is a fundamental right.

I recommend that the Labour Party should adopt the following policies:

  • Turn all private and grammar schools into non-fee paying, non-selective state schools over a period of five to 10 years. This can be done gradually starting with each school’s youngest intake.
  • Within its first five-year term, increase government spending per child to at least the higher North West European average.
  • Any government funded school judged to be ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted should have a legal duty to reserve places equivalent to the percentage of students eligible for free school meals in the local authority, including such students residing outside the school’s catchment area.

Surely, any right predicated on wealth should not be allowed to supersede the right to equality of opportunity.

 


SEA AGM and Annual Conference 25th June 2016

The SEA AGM and Annual Conference will be held at Student Central (formerly the University of London Union, Malet Street London, WC1E 7HY on Saturday 25th June 2016. The AGM will begin at 10.00 and the Conference will run from 11.00 am to 5 pm.

Members and supporters of SEA are welcome at the conference.

The conference will focus on three themes:

Issues arising from The Education White Paper which include mass academisation and the undermining of parental involvement in schools, threats to the professionalism and the working conditions of school staff and the growth of inequality in education.

Higher Education which, with rather less publicity, is also threatened by the government’s dogmatic adherence to marketization.

How SEA can develop alternatives – at the early stage in the parliamentary cycle, SEA needs to identify key areas where new thinking is needed and how we can influence the national policy making process

 As speakers to the conference we will be welcoming:

  • Mary Bousted, General Secretary of ATL
  • John Holmwood, Campaign for the Public University and Professor of Sociology at University of Nottingham
  • Liz Lawrence, President of UCU
  • Jules Pipe, Mayor of Hackney
  • Sorana Vieru NUS Vice-President (Higher Education)
  • Catherine West MP (Hornsey and Wood Green)

The conference will also consider resolutions submitted by SEA members.

The cost to attend the conference is £25 waged and £15 unwaged. This includes lunch.

You can book a place by e mail to socialisteducation@virginmedia.com . Payment can be made on the day.

In order to confirm arrangements including catering it is important we know who is coming and that members book in good time.