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Education after New Labour's Education Bill
THE GOVERNMENT has got its highly contentious Education Bill passed through Parliament, with the full support of the Tory 'opposition'.
New Labour's legislation aims to destroy the comprehensive education system, through encouraging so-called Trust schools based on Blair's failed 'city academy' scheme, and other measures which will increase inequalities in secondary education.
This feature looks at education after Labour's latest attacks. It includes an article by Socialist Party member and National Union of Teachers (NUT) activist Martin Powell-Davies on a major feature of this new bill, the encouragement of 'faith schools'.
In the other part of the feature, sixth-form student Ashley Hassell, who has played an active role in a campaign against cuts in his sixth-form college in Southampton, writes on his view of education in schools, colleges and universities in an article that he wrote for an unofficial college magazine.
If you have any comments on these articles, or reports of struggles against New Labour's Tory education policy, click here to contact us or email us at email@example.com
Blair puts his faith in religious schools
MANY PARENTS and many teachers are worried at the growing influence of religious views on both education and politics. When a Prime Minister, happy to let God judge his support for war in Iraq, is also happy to let fundamentalist car dealers like Sir Peter Vardy run his Academies according to "Biblical teaching", there is plenty to be worried about.
Martin Powell-Davies (secretary, Lewisham, National Union of Teachers)
If you are a parent in Middlesbrough and your local school is a Vardy Academy you already have little choice but to see your child suffer religious indoctrination. But Blair's Education Bill will give even greater opportunities to business and religious sponsors to instil their ideas on young people.
The Bill will encourage foundation schools and trusts to set separate admission criteria which allow selection, perhaps overtly on the grounds of faith or "aptitude" but also, even if covertly, on academic and social grounds as well. As socialists, we say all schools should belong to a democratically elected local authority, operating the same comprehensive admissions arrangements.
In campaigning against the Education Bill, the question of the separate admissions arrangements that already operate in existing faith schools is inevitably being raised by parents. A recent survey of Church primary schools in England confirmed that they were less likely to accept children from low-income families than council-run schools.
In some rural areas and small towns, Church schools are already the only option. Falling rolls are adding to the problem with existing community schools being bullied into merging with church schools - but under voluntary-aided status.
In areas like Kent, where the 11-plus continues, the situation is even worse. Schools are polarised between the selective grammar schools, the "comprehensive" faith schools that may require appropriate proof of attendance at Church for children to be admitted, and the remaining "sink schools".
So, in opposing privatisation and selection, teachers and trade unionists also have to tackle the broader question of whether faith schools should have any place in our school system at all.
A HUNDRED years ago, the demand for secular education was strongly held in the growing trade union movement. There was deep resentment at the 1902 Education Act which legislated for "voluntary" schools to be left in the control of the Church but paid for by the public purse.
As the Labour Clarion of the time complained, "it is preposterous that ratepayers should be compelled to pay an unwilling toll for the promulgation of a theology which they deny".
A century on, socialists would still call it preposterous! However, after so many years during which government-funded voluntary-aided schools have become a firmly established fact, a blunt call to end state funding for faith schools today could provoke a fierce reaction. It could easily be misunderstood as a more general attack on the provision of schools.
Socialists and activists in the teachers' unions aim to win the argument in local communities, including faith communities, against Church schools having a separate status to community schools. Our policy should be to encourage all faith schools to become fully integrated in the state sector.
That doesn't mean that socialists and trade unionists shouldn't carefully explain why they support secular education, while also defending the right of every individual to practise their religion. This should include supporting the granting of special leave for religious festivals, not just Christian ones. It also means defending the right of Muslim girls to choose - or to choose not - to wear the hijab.
However, we must oppose religious views being used as an excuse to prevent young people from gaining access to a thorough health and sex education or to allow discriminatory, homophobic or scientifically false ideas such as "intelligent design" to find their way into the curriculum.
We argue for policies that should apply universally - for inclusive, well-resourced, non-discriminatory, genuinely comprehensive schools teaching a range of religious and non-religious views as part of a wider humanities curriculum that encourages solidarity across the globe.
Socialists stress the need to campaign against the imposition of business and religious sponsors and help encourage existing faith schools to become fully integrated within local authorities as community schools.
We need to avoid our views on faith schools creating an unnecessary barrier to building united opposition to new government attacks. But we must argue against the existing divisions that have been created by faith schools as well.
OF COURSE, when we are putting forward our views on faith schools, socialists and trade unionists have to be extremely careful not to be seen to be part and parcel of a racist society that denies rights to one minority while allowing the established faith groups to maintain their privileges.
Such discrimination is particularly sharply felt within some Muslim communities, with their anger fuelled by the Iraq war, poverty and growing Islamophobia since 9/11. In areas of London, for example, Christian Church schools' faith requirements operate at the expense of Muslim children's access to local schools.
At this stage, most Muslims in Britain support multiracial, multi-faith schools, understanding that further separatism would only lead to increased discrimination against the Muslim community. But some calls have been made for the setting-up of more state funded Islamic faith schools. However, socialists have to explain that this would be a retrograde step, both for workers as a whole and the Muslim community in particular.
Increasing the numbers of faith schools would only increase segregation and division in working-class communities. In contrast, multi-faith, comprehensive education, while insufficient on its own to overcome all the problems of society as a whole, enables youth to accept and recognise differences of faith and race, fostering a unity that can be built on in the wider community beyond the school gates.
This is particularly important at a time when, in the absence of a clear socialist alternative, poverty, wars and oppression have created the conditions for the growth of more fundamentalist interpretations of Christianity, Islam and other faiths. Unchallenged, these ideas could contribute to increasing religious and ethnic tensions that can dangerously divide workers and youth.
Rather than increase the numbers of faith schools, we stand for separate schools of any faith to become reintegrated as non-selective local community schools.
From nursery to university...
Why we need free, democratic comprehensive education
"EDUCATION, EDUCATION, Education" is the much-repeated quote of a more youthful Tony Blair promising that things could only get better. Nine years later, having doused the flames that represented our hopes of a better future, what has become of education? Is the education sector run for the benefit of all or for a select few? Is there the accountability needed? Have standards improved?
I feel that the best education should be available to everyone no matter what a person's circumstances are. That is why it pains me to see the government claiming the same while eroding the comprehensive system.
Selection continues behind the scenes through guises such as religious commitment, generally easier for middle-class parents to attain. This leads to a two-tier education system as has been seen in Tunbridge Wells in Kent.
There, the majority of students at the town's two Catholic secondary schools gain at least five GCSEs compared to less than a quarter of students at the town's comprehensives. The selection involved in the application process for religious schools is one of the many reasons for getting rid of them.
The funding for further education seems very unfair as there are massive inequalities according to location. Funding per student was frozen at a level influenced by the amount of courses that students took in FE colleges. This means that each student in Southampton receives around £1,000 less than those in Winchester, where students generally have a great deal more money to pay their own way.
This is evidence that education is not run for the benefit of all. Nor are the poorer given the most help, as the government claims. In my opinion, the government is trying to produce an education system where the middle classes stand a much better chance of reaching the higher echelons of the job market while the working class are churned out for low-paid casual labour.
This government has been implementing policies which treat universities as no different to businesses with shareholders and full-scale private investment. The outcome of this is a lower quality of services and a rise in the price of university education.
One-third of all students live on less than £40 a week while by 2010, with the introduction of tuition fees, student debt could be as high as £38,000! This is pricing the working class out of a university education.
Besides, this money isn't going to university staff, more often than not it is going into needless developments and the wages of 'world-class' researchers as is the case in Brunel University.
The UCEA (the university employers' association who represent the vice-chancellors) made a deal that one-third of top-up fees would go to increase the abysmal wages of teaching staff. However they have reneged on this deal.
Meanwhile, the vice-chancellors are happy to pay themselves a pittance also; the Vice-Chancellor of Southampton University pays himself a measly £200,000 a year after all! University staff should be paid a fair wage, not least because it encourages them to provide a better service.
OVERALL, THERE is a lack of true accountability in much of education today. The universities are continuing to privatise and invest in 'unethical' companies such as BAE Systems (seller of arms to Pinochet, Mugabe etc.) while trust schools will obliterate accountability in secondary education.
The trust school's sponsor can appoint the majority of the governing body who at the moment are elected and Local Education Authorities (LEAs) are no longer going to provide education itself but services which schools can buy. Also, the unelected company employs teachers and controls their conditions of pay.
As more and more council services are privatised and outsourced, real power over our services is leaving local democratic control and being handed to unaccountable business.
There seems no sense in the government's plans or in the deregulation of education. There is no evidence that closing a school and reopening it under a trust will improve education. In 2004, of the eleven existing academies, six had improved GCSE results, five had not and one failed an OFSTED inspection.
In the newly-published league tables, half the 14 academies with GCSE pupils were in the bottom 200 of England's 3,100 state registered schools. Furthermore, public investment in "independent" schools is not using money for the good of the community. Each place at an academy costs an estimated £21,000 as opposed to £14,000 at a comprehensive.
Trust Schools do not increase choice for parents or children; they do quite the opposite. Academies are free to pick out the middle class, better-performing children to achieve higher places in the league tables while sinking schools continue to fail.
The Education and Inspections Bill is an unpopular bill pushed through by an unpopular government. Only 5% of grass-roots Labour Party members support the government view that all schools should be run by external sponsors while just 20 of the 3,100 state registered schools have said they would be willing to adopt trust school status.
I think the government should invest in a free, democratic, comprehensive education from the cradle to the grave. This is controversial, at least in the era of Blairite marketisation but there are the resources in society to fund such a programme alongside other necessities such as a pension linked to earnings.
For instance, as shown a recent article in the guardian (g2, 17 April) there is no shortage of money in the UK. Since 2000, Britain's liquid assets (stuff people own that can easily be turned into cash excluding first and second homes!) have increased by more than 50%, far ahead of inflation, from £1 trillion (that's £1,000 billion) to £1.6 trillion.
The poor need not be hurt by a progressive tax system: 30% of the population (some 18 million people) own no liquid assets. Contrast this with the richest group in Britain who represent 0.3% of the population and own half the country's liquid assets! They have seen their assets increase by 79% in five years (far ahead of inflation) and have an average £70 million each!
So let's not believe the spin that there isn't the money as the figures certainly prove that there is. Education is vital and needs to be invested in!
(This article is in no way an advertisement for the opposition parties: the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are also calling for deregulation and marketisation!)
What we stand for
- Free, good quality education for all from nursery to university.
- No to divisive City Academies or Trust schools! Fight for well-funded, genuinely comprehensive, neighbourhood schools. Keep big business out of our education.
- No school closures, cutbacks or redundancies.
- Build a mass campaign against the Education Bill, involving teachers and other education workers, school students, parents and the wider community.
- No to the commercialisation and privatisation of education.
- Scrap tuition fees - no to top-up fees and a graduate tax. For a living grant for all students.
- Build the Campaign for a New Workers' Party to challenge the big business parties that work together to tear apart comprehensive education.
In The Socialist 8 June 2006: