Over 100 new ‘free schools’, to open in September, were announced on 13 July, which will more than double the total number of free schools in England. Proposed free schools included a ‘virtual school’ in Staffordshire where students would study from home, and a boarding school near Windsor that would charge £10,500 – not very free! Coventry NUT joint secretary Jane Nellist explains, in a personal capacity, why socialists oppose free schools and academies.
The acceleration of the ‘academies’ programme by the Con-Dem government, which was disgracefully initiated by the previous Labour government, has increased the number of academy schools in England to over 1,900 (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland currently have no academies or free schools).
Nearly 400 of the academies are ‘sponsored’ by organisations such as private businesses including Harris Carpets and E-Act, as well as religious groups such as Oasis.
Free schools, although state funded, are completely independent and do not even have to employ qualified teachers. Segregation in our school communities will increase. Staff conditions and pay will be challenged with no democratic control or planning.
This government promotes free market competition as the best way of improving services. This is fragmenting our schools. It erodes and eventually will – if not stopped – destroy the more democratically planned and accountable comprehensive school system that, despite all the rhetoric, has ensured that more young people succeed.
What comes next is privatisation. Tory education secretary Michael Gove has made no secret that he does not oppose schools making a profit. There are billions of pounds to make out of our public services such as education, and private companies are hovering like vultures.
Coventry, a city that was at the forefront of driving through comprehensive education, is unfortunately not immune to this. In the first round of sponsored academies under New Labour governments, two of our schools became victims.
Despite a campaign, many parents were swayed because the schools had had no investment in their buildings for years and this appeared to be the only way of getting a brand new building. However, because of the strength of trade unions in the city, attacks on teachers’ pay and conditions have been minimal and both schools work within the general network of schools in the city.
With the new government in 2010, the academies programme was cranked up to include ‘converter academies’. Schools which have Ofsted gradings of ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ can take on Academy status with no sponsor involved. Some Coventry schools quickly saw this as an opportunity for various reasons, including the shoring up of school budgets by not paying into funding, such as facilities budgets, or becoming more attractive in the competition for pupils.
Last summer, teachers and support staff in two of those schools, Woodlands and Tile Hill, took strike action which quickly created a real fighting campaign and helped force the Labour controlled city council into a more oppositional approach.
Because the voluntary conversion of schools had not increased at the pace demanded by the government, it introduced forced academies. Schools, mainly primary, fell prey to this hastily introduced measure. Many local authorities (LAs) quickly succumbed. However, some communities have stood firm, such as Downhills Primary School in London.
In Coventry, the school at greatest threat of becoming a forced academy is Henley Green Primary School. Despite having no legal reason to – the school’s most recent Ofsted was a strong ‘satisfactory’ with many elements of ‘good’ – the LA was told by the Department for Education to intervene. The LA, the first to do so, challenged this directive with a judicial review which is now being heard. Parents are adamant that this school will not become an academy. Trade unions across the city will unite to support the school against any attack.
Forced academies have resulted in strike action. Across the country, parents are mobilising to save their local schools from academy status and the infestation of free schools in their communities.
Get involved in those campaigns and defend our schools. Teachers should make sure their union branch keeps them up to date with school campaigns. Yes to a properly funded democratically controlled and accountable education system – no to privatisation!
Sheffield teachers unite
A Sheffield demonstration on 14 July, called by the NUT and NASUWT, saw over 500 people attend. The demonstration was twinned with a similar protest in Oxfordshire as the two unions were targeting the parliamentary seats of Lib Dem deputy prime minister Nick Clegg and Tory prime minister David Cameron.
The demonstration was to defend education, public services and jobs, and is a positive example of both major teacher unions’ recent commitment to work together. The NASUWT and NUT have balloted members to take action in the autumn term over pay and working conditions.
Following the initial rally, which saw a number of local teachers and trade unionists speak, there was a march to the city centre.
The main rally saw more speakers, including NUT general secretary Christine Blower.
Afterwards a meeting of around 20 was held by the National Shop Stewards Network, where I spoke alongside trade unionists from Remploy and the recent recycling workers dispute in Sheffield.
Steve Faulkner, Sheffield NUT rep (personal capacity)
Worthing: public support for anti-academy strike
On Thursday 12 July, NUT and NASUWT teaching union members at Worthing High School, Sussex, held a well supported strike against the school becoming an academy.
The plans to change the school’s status were marked by a lack of consultation with staff. The public support for the strike was fantastic.
A strong picket and protest outside the school gates attracted frequent honks from passing cars.
At the post-strike rally a long list of supportive messages from across the country was read out. The rally attracted a number of parents and supporters, as well as teachers, and showed the determination of all to continue and escalate the campaign through the summer and into the next term.