The Socialist 9 March 2006
Wanted: A party for the millions...not the millionaires!
What will the Education Bill mean for schools?
Members of parliament will shortly be voting on the Blair government's new Education Bill. Education secretary Ruth Kelly claims it gives schools " the freedom they need to raise standards". Martin Powell-Davies, secretary of Lewisham National Union of Teachers (NUT), answers questions on the Bill.
THE BILL allows any state school to opt to become a "foundation school", making themselves independent of local authority control. They can also become part of a "trust", a group of schools run according to the wishes of their private sponsor.
Foundation schools would have to stick to a Code of Practice that may outlaw blatant selection by interview, but otherwise schools can set their own individual admissions arrangements. Instead of having one clear coordinated policy across a local authority, each school could set different admissions criteria. Schools will make arrangements that best help them in the competition for pupils that will boost their league table positions.
Doesn't that sound like a Tory policy?
Exactly. No wonder Cameron's Conservatives are happy to vote for the Bill. It's based on Thatcherite notions of running public services through privatisation and competition. But ask any rail commuter what a disaster it is in reality! The polarisation between schools will widen even further as some schools succeed at the expense of others.
The Tories even tried the same idea of getting schools to "opt out" of local authorities back in 1988. No wonder the then Tory Secretary of Education has declared: "I welcome a sinner that repenteth and am delighted that the government is bringing forward the same proposals I introduced"!
What powers will sponsors have over children's education?
New Labour hopes big-business and religious sponsors will step in to set up Trusts that will market their particular brand of education. Many will jump at the chance to instil their ideas on children. Ruth Kelly is boasting that "we are already finding considerable interest from potential trust supporters".
New Labour has already tested out the idea through their 'academies'. So the King's Academy in Middlesbrough, sponsored by evangelical car dealer Sir Peter Vardy, has lessons which are "consistent with Biblical teaching". The Bexley Business Academy has a "trading floor" so youngsters can learn how to gamble on the stock market!
Will these plans "raise standards" as Blair claims?
No. Letting the free market loose on schools will inevitable create "winners" and "losers". The lucky few may get in to their school of choice but many pupils, particularly working-class children, will lose out. As recent research has shown, schools that boast the "best" results do so by attracting as many middle-class pupils as possible. The Education Bill will widen that class divide even further.
This isn't just a prediction. Blair's White Paper pointed to similar policies being introduced in Sweden as evidence of success. But Swedish educationalists have reported the actual result has been to create greater divisions between schools and increased social and ethnic segregation.
Won't there be more "parent power"?
Again the answer is no. New Labour's spin about giving parents more "choice" is just another con. It will be the schools choosing the pupils they want, not the other way round.
The foundation or sponsor will also have the power to appoint a majority of places on the governing body. Parents will have no real say in how schools are run and nor will the elected local authority.
What will happen to local authorities?
New Labour wants local authorities to become "a commissioner, rather than provider, of schools". Their role will now largely be to provide services that schools can buy into if they so wish, rather than to plan and control local education. As more and more council services are privatised and outsourced, real power over our services will be handed to private businesses instead of local democratic control.
Council budgets to maintain vital central services such as support for special needs will be cut even further. Foundation schools will also become the legal employer instead of the council. This is bound to lead to threats to national pay and conditions arrangements.
Can the Education Bill be defeated?
The New Labour machine will be working hard to bully would-be "rebel" MPs into voting for the Bill. But some still won't be able to stomach voting for such a blatant abandonment of the comprehensive principles that Labour once stood for.
But, even if there is a sizeable "rebellion", Blair can probably rely on the Tories to get his Bill passed.
Whether he needs their votes or not, the Education and Inspections Bill 2006 will be just the latest example of how New Labour has adopted old Tory policy. What clearer message could there be about what Blair and Brown's Party now stands for?
What will happen after the Bill becomes law?
Some head teachers say they aren't interested in pursuing "foundation" status. But, once a few schools opt for it, others could quickly follow for fear of getting left behind in the competition.
The strength of united strike action, backed by bold community campaigns, will be needed to prevent the privatisation and fragmentation of education.
A new mass workers' party, filled out and strengthened by those fighting for a decent education and for all our public services, would fight for these attacks to be reversed. But it must also go further and campaign for a properly resourced, democratically controlled comprehensive system that provides a good education to every young person.
Teachers strike against sweat-shop managers
FOR THE first time in decades, a primary school in Waltham Forest, east London, came out on a one-day strike. Mayville Primary teachers were protesting at the way a new pay structure (Teaching and Learning Responsibility payments) was being implemented by the head and governors.
Linda Taaffe, Waltham Forest NUT and NUT national executive
This would mean that some teachers would have to apply for their own jobs against outside competition - completely unacceptable to the National Union of Teachers (NUT). The new system, implemented in the vast majority of schools without too many apparent problems, has been abused in this case by a bullying management ready to wield a big stick - the sort of behaviour worthy of any sweat-shop manager!
A few days before the strike a teacher from an agency was told her services were no longer required, just after she had announced she had joined the union! The agency then went on to supply two more teachers on the day of the strike ostensibly for a "trial day". A coaching company Ultimate Sports, which has a contract for sports in the school, also drafted in extra staff.
However, the response of the parents and support staff was marvellous. Learning assistants refused to do any work normally done by teachers. They would not contemplate covering classes, generally showing their support for teachers and disgust towards the head.
Parents, it seems, had their own grumbles. They could well understand the teachers' frustration. On the strike day the latest edition of the local paper gave space to a group of parents who had been petitioning because they are upset by some of the actions of the school's management.
This is a newly built school (not PFI) and has enjoyed the support of parents over the difficult time of amalgamation and re-building. The management have squandered that goodwill.
On the gates parents took leaflets and were perplexed because they had been told the school would be open. The management was furious. One manager even came close to knocking down a picket - who happened to be the local secretary of the NUT!
The die is now cast. The union wants to escalate the strike, if there is no response from management. So far we have had assurances from the agency that the 'scabbing' will not be repeated. The sports company has yet to be contacted. A big meeting is already set for parents, support staff and teachers to discuss what to do next.
This small strike has highlighted what is happening in some schools with bullying management and staff not used to strikes. One teacher said: "It has made me realise just what a strong team we are."
We want to win on the issue of responsibility payments but also ensure that feeling of strength operates in the workplace every single day and not just on the picket line.
In this issue
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party workplace news