Archive article from The Socialist Issue 350
Labour's failed all the tests
School students, parents and teachers are being failed by New Labour's education policies.
They claimed their priority was "education, education, education" when they came into office but the reality has been shown to be "privatisation, cuts and testing."
The socialist exposes New Labour's real policies for education and explains what a socialist education programme would contain.
LAST MONTH, Doug McAvoy, the Outgoing general secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) criticised the government's plans for education. He said they want schools to be "run like Tesco stores". '
He continued by accusing Tony Blair of taking the country to a system where schools are "marketised, franchised and sponsored" with the government obsessions with "deregulation, privatisation, commodification and globalisation".
It's taken 15 years as general secretary and seven years' bitter experience of a Labour government for Doug McAvoy to reach those conclusions. But if he'd heeded the advice of socialists earlier, there might have been a more effective resistance to these policies - policies dubbed by one commentator as "free-market Stalinism".
But the government's love affair with big business continues apace. Only last week Steven Twigg, a junior education minister, backed a £2.5 million government-endorsed schools sports project, sponsored by the food giant Nestle.
This is the same company that was criticised at its annual shareholders' meeting last month for promoting breakfast cereals for children which have high levels of fat, salt and sugar.
Nestle has also been accused of violating UN codes on marketing breast milk substitutes to the developing world.
Last year government sports minister Richard Caborn endorsed a scheme where children were encouraged to collect Cadburys chocolate wrappers in exchange for sports equipment. A football net costs 5,440 wrappers.
Class sizes increase
IN THE meantime class sizes in England and Wales have increased. Despite all the claims about increased spending in schools, the average UK state school primary class now has 26.8 pupils, compared to an OECD average of just 22.1. Of the major developed countries, only Korea and Japan have bigger classes in both primary and secondary schools.
Last year, English primary schools lost 800 teachers who were not replaced and class sizes increased. Thousands more infants (5-7 year-olds) are being taught in classes over 30.
The NUT estimate that schools will face a £1 billion spending shortfall over the next three years. Rising costs will outstrip increases in funding until at least 2006. But the government still finds money to spend on its pet projects such as the SATs testing system, performance pay for teaching 'superheads' etc.
And they have spent £22 million on management consultants over the poast five years. In addition OFSTED costs £200 million a year.
the drive towards privatisation, directed by the Chancellor Gordon Brown, has also run into considerable difficulties. the biggest privately financed school building scheme in the South East came grinding to a halt in October 2003 after the construction company Ballast plc went bust. Ballast was involved in a £340 million Private Finance Initiative (PFI) project in Tower Hamlets, east London. PFI has even been criticised by the audit commission as an inefficient use of resources.
Dozens of schools built under PFI could have a lifespan of less than 20 years, according to the government design body CABE. But local authorities will be forced to maintain their contracts with PFI schools.
Some popular comprehensive schools have been threatened with closure such as in Brighton, because the penalties involved in closing unpopular PFI schools would be so great. Of course socialists don't support the closure of any schools but this shows how local authorities are forced to put education considerations aside when bound by PFI contracts.
Another aspect of the government's privatisation programme for education is the handing over of "failing" education departments to private companies. But this has also had considerable problems. For example WS Atkins were given a £28 million a year 5-year contract to run education in Southwark, south London but they pulled out overnight in early 2003 leaving schools' administration in disarray.
THE OTHER aspect of government policy which the Labour Party has inherited from the Tories is the testing regime, dominated by the SATs tests at ages 7,11 and 14. One consequence of this has been the huge increase in pupil alienation.
According to the childrens' charity NSPCC young people are now more worried about exams than they are about bullying, relationships or parents.
More than 82% say they worry about exams and almost 75% think they have too much homework. This survey, carried out in November 2003, gives the lie to the popular perception that young people are only concerned with fashion and relationships. Only 4% of children in the survey said they worried about clothes and fashion.
The Samaritans have reported a three-fold increase in young suicides over the last 20 years. Many teachers and parents are concluding that this is linked to pupils' general unhappi-ness with this rigid, testing culture which starts at a very young age.
English schools are the most tested in Europe and pupils on average receive over twice the number of compulsory tests and assessments by the age of 11 than they do in other European countries. And yet there is no clear evidence that this has any beneficial effect on pupils' numeracy or literacy levels.
The qualification and curriculum authority (QCA) is the government body which is charged with the regulation of exams and tests. Yet, according to the Times Education Supplement, they tried to hide a three-year study which revealed that the so-called gains at Key Stage 2 English were "illusory" because of the way the marking was done. The marking was designed to try to show that tests were improving standards.
Under pressure, OFSTED has had to reform the curriculum at the foundation stage and in Wales the SATs apparatus-is in the process of being dismantled. But the abandonment of the boycott campaign by the NUT has left the basic structure intact in England for the time being. But massive support still exists amongst parents and teachers to build a boycott of SATs, which are of no educational value and continue to inflict damage to countless children.
A socialist programme for Education
SOCIALISTS STAND for free, high quality education for all, from nursery to university. We call for a massive increase in public spending to provide the increased staffing, smaller class sizes and good quality resources needed to ensure the best education and individual support for every child.
To recruit and retain teachers, there should be an immediate end to performance pay, a minimum 20% non-contact time for teachers and significant pay rises for all school staff. There should be a campaign to recruit greater numbers of Black and Asian teachers and to expand mother tongue provision.
Private-sector involvement in running schools and Local Education Authorities (LEAs) should be ended. Teachers should be employed through fully democratic LEAs run by elected representatives, subject to recall, including school teachers and non-teaching staff, parents, local trade unionists, community organisations and secondary school students.
Schools should also be run by similar democratic governing committees. Headteachers should be elected. To allow more working-class parents to become involved, governors should receive paid time-off to attend governors meetings during the day. Adequate time must be allowed for trade union organisation and for school students to develop their own unions.
Selection on any grounds, be it by ability, aptitude or religion, should be abolished. All schools, including church and fee-paying public schools, should be brought under local democratic control. We stand for a democratically planned equitable admissions policy based on genuinely comprehensive, co-educational, neighbourhood schools.
The present national curriculum must be abolished together with Ofsted inspections and compulsory religious education. Pupils of all backgrounds and abilities should experience a lively, relevant, broad and balanced, polytechnical education. It should be based on a class analysis of society, emphasising anti-racist education and working-class struggle.
We must abolish SATs and school league tables. There will be a role for diagnostic testing and moderated teacher assessment but a socialist education system will be based on learning and attainment rather than exams.
This victory is only the beginning
This is what Ricky Jones, Hackney UNISON'S education convenor said at a meeting with around 50 parents and members of the community, who have come together because of their concerns for education in Hackney.
A few weeks ago, the Learning Trust (LT) had to back down over a school closure in the face of a joint campaign of parents and trade unions, supported by the Socialist Party.
LT wanted to close Craven Park School, a primary school in Stamford Hill. They argued that the school had bad OFSTED results and there were not enough pupils.
The consultation process was farcical. A consultation meeting was set for the day after the holidays. But LT miscalculated, parents and trade union representatives came prepared. LT's first concession was to set up further consultation meetings the following week.
50 to 60 angry parents were at each of the parents' meetings. At the staff meeting, members of all three trade unions (UNISON, NUT and GMB) voted for a ballot for industrial action.
The last meeting was for the community. Parents leafleted the area and about 200 people turned up. After two hours of passionate speeches by parents, kids, trade union representatives and members of the community, the meeting ended by everybody standing up chanting: "Keep the school open" into the sour faces of LT's four representatives.
The united demand was to keep the school open as it is and get a new head teacher in. Under Craven Park's new headteacher, some good, experienced teachers had left the school and pupils and staff had felt bullied by her. The campaign planned to lobby LT's board meeting where the decision was to be made. But before the meeting the news came out that the school would stay open, although under the Fresh Start scheme.
This is a big victory, although not a full one. Fresh Start means that money comes from central government, but it also means that all members of staff have to re-apply for their jobs.
So the trade union campaign is not over. Angela Grappy, speaker for the Craven Park Parents said that the parents are fully behind the staff if they decide to go on strike.
LT is planning more reorganisations and closures. And 700 Hackney kids don't have a Hackney secondary school to go to this year!
Parents, trade unions and the community need to come together and develop a clear strategy on how to continue the struggle for a school place for every child in Hackney and for a decent education. The meeting last week was a starting point.
"There's going to be no more SATs in this house"
I WENT in to collect my younger daughter from school last June and I saw my eldest daughter's class in the hall. These ten and eleven year-old children were crying because some of them hadn't done well in their SATs tests - but they were so upset I though someone had died. Even the ones who had got good results were crying for the others.
Elaine Healey, Tameside Socialist Party
The school is under pressure to get the grades up so it looks good. So the children are bombarded with maths, English and science and nothing else for the months leading up to the tests.
Last year during the run-up to the tests, we had to rush our eldest daughter into A&E because she couldn't breathe and she couldn't feel her arms and legs.
They couldn't find anything wrong but they did ask her if she was worried about anything. The same thing happened the next day. But after the SATs were over she never had it again.
My youngest daughter is supposed to take the first lot of SATs next year but there's going to be no more SATs in this house.
I don't know where parents stand -have parents got the right to say no to SATs? I don't want my daughters to be put through that ordeal.
It's not as if they aren't getting tested all the time anyway. My youngest gets tested on spelling every week and she's only five.
When you're preparing to go from junior school to secondary school you should be able to prepare for what is a big change in your school life. You should be able to do some of the subjects you'll be doing later, like French and art.
But the schools are in a race to get the best results, so they put the children through the stress of months of practising and testing on the same three subjects.
For a teachers' leader on a teacher’s salary.
Socialist Party member Martin Powell-Davies is standing for General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT).
Wherever he has had the chance to speak to classroom teachers his ideas have been welcomed. As the only candidate who is still teaching, Martin understands the pressures teachers are under.
He has pledged that it elected he will stay on the wage or a classroom teacher, not on the existing general secretary's salary of £90,000.
IT WAS fortuitous that I went to a local primary school two weeks before the hustings for NUT general secretary. The staff had endured a long period with a bullying head and had built solidarity with each other as the only way to defend themselves. The issue which brought it all to a head was the same as in most primary schools, planning and workload.
John Blackall, secretary Knowsley National Union of Teachers (NUT)
I made dear the union's position and the support available locally and told them that if it helped they could treat what I said as an instruction. But all they wanted off me was the assurance that the union would back them up.
Watching what was going on in education and seeing how ineffective the union was did not give them confidence.
But they were confident that they could deal with it themselves and simply wanted to know if they could rely on the union if things went wrong.
We talked about the importance of a fighting leadership and the national elections. I told them of Martin Powell-Davies' perspective for the union and of the need to get a leadership we could have confidence in.
So they all turned up at the hustings, where the branch decided who to nominate for the general secretary election. They not only made the meeting quorate, but also ensured a unanimous vote for Martin. They saw him as understanding, determined and different. They liked what he said and had no doubts about which way to vote.
Two weeks later they called me again. The action taken so far had been escalated and the school governors had called the Local Education Authority (LEA) in. However, the LEA wanted to interview the staff individually. The staff saw this as intimidation.
Following our intervention the LEA adopted a more agreeable process. Meanwhile the Head had been briefing the support staff about what to say when interviewed. But unfortunately for him, many of them had been affected by the feeling of solidarity and had taken the teachers side.
The situation is not yet resolved but solidarity ill ensure success. The teachers know this and although they felt the union was generally useless, the needed its support. It was a short step to the realisation that the national elections were crucial to the political; future of the union and they needed to play a part.
In this little primary school Martin was speaking to the converted. There are thousands of others experiencing the same pressure through exams, OFSTED, SATs, league tables, planning and low pay who are also listening and looking for someone to vote for who will give them their support.
Martin stands for:
Voting starts this month, for leaflets, posters and more information about the campaign see: www.electmartin.org.uk or ring 07946 445488.