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From The Socialist newspaper, 18 June 2008

Stop New Labour's divisive school academy plans

Teachers strike on 24 April 2008, photo Paul Mattsson

Teachers strike on 24 April 2008, photo Paul Mattsson

LABOUR'S 'IMPROVE or close' ultimatum to 638 English schools is a thinly disguised plan to accelerate the privatisation of secondary education. Under their "National Challenge Strategy", schools that have failed to meet the imposed minimum target (of 30% of pupils gaining five A*-C GCSEs including English and Maths) have been put on the government's hit list.

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

The price of continued 'failure' will be to become either a privately-sponsored Academy or a Trust school backed by a business or university. Either way, the control of hundreds of schools, including staffing and admissions, will be taken out of the hands of an elected local authority and handed over to private sponsors and trust appointees.

But, instead of planning for the interests of the community as a whole, individual sponsors will put their own interests first, at the expense of other local schools. The fragmentation of education into the control of many different employers is also an obvious threat to collective trade union organisation.

The policy is driven by political dogma, not educational concerns. Despite all the financial advantages offered to them, there is no evidence that academies offer pupils a better education than community schools. After all, how does the government explain why 26 of the schools on the hit list are already academies?

Where academies have succeeded in improving their exam scores, it has too often been down to simply changing the pupil population. For example, academies tend to exclude significantly higher numbers of pupils than neighbouring community schools.

Education Secretary of State, Ed Balls, claims that the policy will help "break the link between poverty and attainment". But a market-driven school system will make divisions greater, not less.

Consistent research demonstrates that the main factor influencing a school's position in the league tables remains the social class of its pupil intake. That's why it is so unfair to impose a common GCSE target on schools, without taking into account the particular circumstances each one faces.

Without a major injection of funding, above all to reduce class sizes to a maximum of 20, there is no chance that schools can overcome factors such as poor housing and diet which inevitably discriminate against children from working-class communities.

But, while waving the big stick, the government is offering little in the way of real resources. Much of the 400 million 'National Challenge' funding is earmarked for academies and trusts - not at supporting schools staying as community comprehensives.

Unfortunately, the unjust labelling of schools as 'failures' will inevitably dissuade local parents from applying, compounding the difficulties they face. Demoralised staff, knowing the bullying inquisitions that these initiatives inevitably bring down on the heads of already overworked teachers, will also look to move to other schools as well.

Trade unionists need to expose the real aims behind this divisive initiative, to use their collective strength to defend staff in the targeted schools and to oppose the break-up of local authority schooling. The strike action taken by NUT members in Bolton to oppose their possible removal from council employment shows the way forward.

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In The Socialist 18 June 2008:

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