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From The Socialist newspaper, 4 April 2007

Growing inequality in schools

Labour's market policies damage education

A DECADE ago, Tony Blair famously announced that "education, education, education" would be his top priority. What followed has been a bitter disappointment for the majority of parents, students and school staff.

Martin Powell-Davies, secretary Lewisham National Union of Teachers (NUT)

New Labour has turned its back on the "comprehensive" ethos that underpinned previous post-war Labour governments' education policy. Then, the needs of an expanding economy, combined with pressure from the trade union movement, helped open up opportunities for working-class children previously restricted to grammar school pupils. Now the ladder is being pulled up once again.

Some areas are still blighted by open selection at the age of 11. The number of pupils at grammar schools has jumped by 20% since Labour came to power. The retention of "secondary moderns" for children deemed 'failures' at 11 in Lincolnshire and Kent meant these two authorities had the highest numbers of schools in the "bottom 100" in the latest GCSE exam league tables.

But the growing inequalities in schooling under New Labour are generally more obscured. Rather than blatantly reintroducing the "11-plus" exam, they are encouraging a "free market" to take hold, where schools compete with each other for pupils and resources. Such elements of genuine comprehensive education as existed are being fragmented as schools seek a competitive advantage by becoming "specialist" schools, "trust" schools or "Academies".

Polarised education

Blair and Brown's neo-liberal advisers theorise that such competition between schools and other public services will 'drive up standards'. But the real result of marketisation is a growing polarisation between schools at the top and bottom of the league tables and a widening class divide in education. This is not only evident in England but in other countries where similar policies have been pursued, such as Sweden.

Charles Clarke, previous Education Secretary, blurted out the truth when he summed up Labour's strategy as enticing the middle classes from private schools back into the state sector, saying "they are the people we are after". Gordon Brown followed this up by claiming that he would somehow increase spending per student in state schools to the levels found in private education.

Of course, Brown's promises will prove to be even emptier than Blair's. His latest budget cut the growth rate of education spending by half to 2.5 per cent a year for the next three years. This is when the UK already spends less per student than other 'advanced' countries, especially in the secondary sector. English class sizes are well above the European average.

Britain has one dubious claim to being a world leader in education: An international study found that the difference in class sizes between private and state schools is bigger in the UK than in any other developed country.

Brown's proposal for all young people to remain in education or training until the age of 18 has to be seen against this economic reality. The massive investment in infrastructure and training required to provide Brown's promised "world-class education" will not be found.

Instead, the plans could mean a return to a sharp divide into 'academic' and 'vocational' streams from 14 with many 16-18 year olds then being compelled into workplaces on a paltry "training" wage. The 7,730 youth studying for in-house Maths and English tests while working for McDonald's would meet Brown's new requirement.

Testing times

WITHOUT ADEQUATE investment, such progress as has been made in education under New Labour has been at the expense of staff working conditions. Despite all the promises, support staff are still exploited with low pay and inadequate contracts. Even official figures show that teachers are still working 50 hours a week or more.

Helped by spineless trade union leadership, Labour have used performance pay, school league tables and the OFSTED inspection regime to bully staff into putting up with these pressures until they go under with ill-health or resign.

Over one in ten teachers are leaving full-time employment every year, many citing intolerable stress and workload as the reason. For example, a recent survey of teachers conducted by Nottingham City NUT found that "6 out of 10 wake up in the night and can't get back to sleep because they are thinking about work".

Labour's imposed testing regime has damaged children's well-being as well. UNICEF's finding that Britain's children are the unhappiest in the industrialised world is a damning indictment of Blair's legacy.

The sad fact that British children were found to most dislike school is no real surprise. With schools judged by their examination scores, many pupils' educational experience has become a race through an imposed curriculum in order to be ready for the next test.

Time in primary schools for subjects like art and music is being squeezed out by dry literacy and numeracy lessons to prepare for SATs tests. As well-known children's author, Philip Pullman, commented: the government's National Literacy Strategy document has "71 different verbs under the heading of 'reading' ... reinforce, predict, check, discuss.... The word enjoy didn't appear once".

The government is coming under growing criticism over the damage being caused by its testing regime. In response, ministers have announced that they are going to pilot a new system of 'progress tests' which pupils could sit when teachers believe they are ready instead of only in "SATs week", at the ages of 11 and 14. But the league tables will still remain.

So, instead of 'teaching to the test' just dominating Year 6 and Year 9 (ages 11 and 14), it could become an even more dominant feature throughout the whole school curriculum.

Lacking real resources and caught in the spotlight of league tables, even schools that may have firmly embraced the comprehensive ideal in the past are driven to find a way to get ahead of others - or risk falling to the bottom of the pile themselves.

Tables of affluence

WHILE THIS or that 'school improvement' technique can have some effect, there is really only one fundamental factor that determines a school's league table position - its pupil intake. Schools succeed if they manage to attract pupils who are most likely to succeed in the examination hall and who can be easily taught with the minimum of staffing and attention.

The key factor remains social class. That is not in any way to accept the reactionary idea that middle-class children are inevitably 'brighter' than working-class youngsters. It is simply that relative affluence can offer countless advantages, such as a good diet, decent housing, access to books and the internet, time to read and play together and much more besides.

These class factors would challenge even a genuinely comprehensive system. In Blair and Brown's capitalist Britain they are a huge barrier to equality.

Fundamentally, the government's school league tables are simply league tables of relative pupil affluence. As a 2006 analysis of nearly a million individual pupils' results by London University academics concluded: "For schools the message is clear. Selecting children who are in high-status neighbourhoods is one of the most effective ways of retaining a high position in the league table".

New Labour's privately sponsored academy schools are able to try and put this advice into practice. They are allowed to set their own admissions criteria, independent of any local authority arrangements. Labour's national Admissions Code still leaves academies plenty of leeway to set policies that help them improve their intake at the expense of neighbouring community schools.

Figures also show that permanent exclusion rates at academies often far exceed those of neighbouring schools as the sponsors seek to unload their more challenging pupils onto local community schools. Similarly, the proportion of pupils with special needs has drastically fallen at academies in Walsall and Bristol.

Even so, and despite the massive investment in new infrastructure, the promised examination successes in academies have been, at best, limited. Yet Labour claims that the private sponsors' influence will improve schools. Whether having lectures in 'enterprise' from a carpet millionaire or a curriculum that expounds the particular religious views of your fundamentalist sponsor helps pupils to learn is questionable!

The benefits to the sponsor are far more obvious. In return for a few per cent of the total cost, they are given an expensively rebuilt independent school and public funding to use to impose their particular beliefs on young people. In the case of Bob Edmiston, sponsor of the Grace academy in Solihull, the returns appear to be more concrete. The school has awarded 300,000 of contracts to a company run by... Mr Edmiston!

Time to act

IN CASE anyone was under any illusions that he may have a different agenda to Blair, Gordon Brown recently publicly endorsed Labour's plan to set up 400 academies altogether. And the expansion of "trust schools" allowed for under the latest Education Act is just as serious a threat.

Like academies, trust schools can also set their own admission policies. Both also employ their own staff, a direct threat to undermine unions by fragmenting national pay and conditions arrangements. Unlike most academies, many of the schools now contemplating becoming 'trusts' are already high in the league tables. Trusts will inevitably use their new status to consolidate their advantageous position at the expense of neighbouring schools.

Local democracy is also at stake. New Labour's vision sees councils as "commissioners, not providers" of education. The Education Act brought in 'competition' rules that mean a council has to seek bids to run any new school from private sponsors instead of just running it themselves.

The government's "Building Schools for the Future" scheme to rebuild or renovate secondary schools also has many strings attached to it that promote private firms taking over support services previously under local authority control.

Instead of elected local authorities planning the admissions and funding of local community schools, New Labour's market policies could give rise to a chaotic system of competing enterprises run by unaccountable sponsors.

There is an urgent need for trade unions and local communities to organise in defence of comprehensive education and to demand the resources that would really allow every child's needs to be met.

Campaign groups of parents and staff have been mounting local battles across the country against school closures, cuts and academy proposals, sometimes successfully. But a national lead to seriously challenge the government and its Tory allies has been sadly missing.

The National Union of Teachers has produced some well-argued materials opposing New Labour policy but has largely restricted its campaign to parliamentary lobbying. It proved completely ineffectual in opposing the Education Act. NUT General Secretary Steve Sinnott's misplaced illusions in Gordon Brown will also soon be shattered. The need for parents, students and staff to build their own political voice will become ever clearer.

Just as with other public services such as the NHS, local campaigns need to be brought together in a national campaign. But it is the workplace unions, particularly the NUT, that have the strength and resources to give the campaign a solid basis.

The threat to teachers' conditions from Labour's market policies should be reason enough for the unions to take collective industrial action. When our children's futures are at stake, surely it's time to act!

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In The Socialist 4 April 2007:

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