Eton Mess: education the election winner for Labour

schools blog

EDUCATION is the biggest dividing line in the General Election.

And it is one battleground where Jeremy Corbyn and Labour can win big time.

Education determines an apprenticeship, a university place, job opportunity, home, happiness, health, career, earning potential and a person’s whole life.

It also divides our country on class lines and underpins the status quo, where the rich get richer and the rest of us do the best we can with what is left.

On one hand Theresa May’s Tories offer SAT tests and selection at every level, privatisation of schools via the sinister academy system, grammar schools and private institutions such as Eton and Westminster, charging up to £36,000 a year for the very wealthy to educate their offspring.

On the other hand, Labour is offering a free and fair education system for everyone, where success does not depend on wealth, social class or exam results.

Ironic, because today, MPs questioned “how much of a grip” the Tory government’s Department for Education has on providing school places where they are really needed.

The system is “increasingly incoherent and too often poor value for money,” says the Public Accounts Committee.

And the government is spending “well over the odds” on free schools or academies while other schools are in poor condition, concludes the cross-party committee.

But Theresa May has already tied her education policy to so-called free schools and the failed grammar school system.

Last September she put grammar schools back at the heart of Conservative thinking for the first time since the 1970s.

For May, the return of selection is part of an attempt to redefine the Conservatives as a party of meritocracy and exam success.

Tory Ministers also say controversial free schools are key to meeting demand for school places.

The government pledged to open 500 more free schools, which are state-funded but independently run, by 2020 and has plans for a further 110.

It is a huge mistake, which panders to their friends in big business.

For the past three months I helped campaign against the academisation of a vibrant primary school in Hastings, in East Sussex.

I saw at first-hand how schools and children’s futures were being handed into the private control of multi-millionaire businessmen, who in turn had unhealthy links to senior politicians.

Those running the academies, or free schools, earn vast salaries while the education of the children often suffers.

One head of a primary academy chain took home a salary in excess of £200,000, after being handed a massive pay rise.

He also received £28,316 in pension contributions, which took his overall remuneration package to £229,138.

This is more than the Prime Minister and many city bankers.

Last year delegates at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers conference in Liverpool, heard that growing numbers of academy heads were now also earning more than the PM’s salary of £149,440 a year.

“When schools were under local council control, it would have been unthinkable as well as impossible that a headteacher, of even a group of schools, could earn more than a director of education, let alone the Secretary of State for Education, let alone the Prime Minister,” Simon Clarkson from Leicestershire told the conference.

“We need to guard against the rot of greed.”

Mr Clarkson concluded: “Our state schools are paid for by the public. They need to be accountable. Let me remind you whose money is being used to do this… ours!”

Now the National Audit Office agrees that further academisation of schools is a “significant risk to long-term value for money”.

The Public Accounts Committee MPs say that having enough school places in safe, high-quality buildings, where they are needed, is crucial.

“Without this, parents may have less choice, pupils may have inconvenient journeys to school and the learning environment may be less effective, putting educational outcomes at risk,” they say.

They note that 420,000 new school places will be needed by 2021, many in secondary schools where provision is more expensive than at primary level.

“In the context of severe financial constraints, it is vital that the department uses its funding in a more coherent and cost effective way,” say the MPs, adding that too many free schools are in unsuitable temporary buildings, lacking outside space and sports facilities.

Committee chairwoman Meg Hillier said the free schools programme was “diverting a lot of money” from school maintenance.

“What we want to see is a much more balanced programme of capital funding so that existing poor school buildings get the funding and investment they need and those new schools are built.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the report reflected head teachers’ concerns.

“Creating surplus places is an inefficient use of public money and damages existing schools where spare capacity is created,” he said.

Kevin Courtney, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, added: “Free schools do not address the school-place crisis, often being built in areas of no need and often in unsuitable premises.

“This policy is not evidenced based and is nothing to do with the wellbeing of children or providing a sound education.”

Labour’s Angela Rayner, shadow education secretary, says the free school programme was incoherent and inefficient.

“In the recent Budget, the chancellor announced plans that would only create one-sixth of the school places we will need by 2021, and even those plans were drastically underfunded,” she said.

“Tory academy plans are in complete chaos. 

“The impossible job the Department for Education has set itself in trying to directly run thousands of schools from Whitehall is fully exposed as we learn over half of existing academy chains have refused to take on schools and 70% of inadequate academies have been left languishing with poor academy chains.”

Labour’s plans for education are, in contrast, broad-reaching and inclusive.

Jeremy Corbyn made education a central theme of his campaign for re-election as Labour leader, lamenting the “commodification” of the education system.

Labour’s proposed national education service is impressive.

It starts with a principle that education is a public good. Learning should be provided from cradle to grave.

From there, it goes to universal free childcare, building on the success of Sure Start – something which has been dismantled by the Tories.

Next, Labour pledges decent schools for all, including class sizes of under 30, an idea so universal that the only question it raises is why it’s not already the case.

Labour also advocates free tertiary education and the abolition on university tuition fees.

Finally, the promise of investment in adult education is a huge vote winner – who could possibly want adults to be less skilled, less fulfilled, than they could be?

And today Labour pledged to bring back maintenance grants for the poorest students and restore the abolished financial support allowance.

Labour will reverse the decision to replace means-tested grants for university students with loans, announced by George Osborne in his final budget.

It will also reinstate the Education Maintenance Allowance, a means-tested cash payment, for 16- and 17-year-olds from poorer families choosing to remain in education.

Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies think-tank suggested the EMA, which was worth £30 a week, helped boost participation among teenagers.

But it was abolished in 2011 as part of the Tory coalition government’s efforts to reduce the deficit and replaced with a much less generous bursary system.

Ms Rayner said the twin announcements: “Show that while the Tories continue to burden our young people with debt, the Labour Party is committed to investing in our young people.

“It is only by investing in education that we can ensure that all of our young people, whatever their background, are able to succeed in whatever they aspire to.

“When we can help improve the education of over a million young people with a small increase in corporation tax, it is an investment we would be foolish not to make.”

Labour says the policy could be paid for through a 1.5% increase in corporation tax.

Analysts say such a move would raise £3billion a year.

Meanwhile education trade unions have urged all parents to turn education cuts into the election battleground.

The National Union of Teachers says the General Election offers an opportunity to fight for better resourced schools and teachers.

Kevin Courtney told the union’s annual conference the snap election was an opportunity to challenge the funding shortages in England.

“In the run-up to this election, parents must demand of all politicians: will they invest in our country, will they invest in our children?” he told delegates in Cardiff.

“I don’t believe there’s a parent anywhere in this country who voted for their child’s class size to go up, or voted for their child to lose the opportunity to do art or dance or music.

“We can reach parents with this and we can make a difference in the general election.”

The NUT’s call on funding was joined by other unions, including those representing headteachers.

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Our top message is that there is insufficient funding in the education system. We call on all political parties to commit to investing in education as part of a long-term economic plan.”

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said his union would also campaign over the school funding cuts.

“There are crises, like teacher recruitment and the £3billion of cuts the government expects schools to make, that should not be forgotten during the election campaign,” he said.

The education battle lines are drawn and it gives Jeremy Corbyn and Labour its best platform to win the General Election.

  • If you are not yet convinced, read the words of one teacher, Rebecca Bee:

“Let me start by saying that I am not concerned about my pay. I don’t want more money.

What I am concerned about are the cuts that the Conservative government makes to education are huge, life-changing cuts that are having a detrimental effect on the mental health and well-being of a massive number of children and young people.

Michael Gove started his annihilation of the A*-G GCSE system back in 2010, and this year we see the first string of examinations take place.

“More rigour” was the battle cry. However, did you know that the new GCSE English Literature exam is a closed-book?

This means that no student will be given a copy of the text in their exam – not even SEND (special educational needs and disabilities) students, many of which have recall and memory problems.

The GCSE English Language exam uses extracts from heritage texts that carry a reading age of approximately 17.

The average reading age of a GCSE-level student is 14.

So why are we asking our students to read and analyse texts that are aimed at someone with a reading age 3 years above their own? Some of my students have a reading age of 9. They cannot in any way access the papers.

We still don’t know how the new GCSEs are going to be graded.

Schools are in disarray as they know one thing to be true – if their GCSE results are bad, Ofsted will swoop in, prepared to announce them as “requiring improvement”.

Excessive testing at ages 7 and 11 has led to children prepared for tests, but little else.

These exams are completely arbitrary and do not test the skills required for success at GCSE and in adult life.

I agree that students need to leave primary school ‘secondary ready’.

But, I do not think that testing students’ ability to identify grammatical items over their ability to compose a creative piece is the best way to do it.

I have a firm belief that testing students does not make them better learners.

We do not need grammar schools. We don’t. Not until all other schools are funded well, and equally.

If we increase funding to all state schools to a level reflective of needs, we allow teachers to develop a ‘grammar curriculum’ and give schools ‘grammar resources’ and invest in better pastoral care, then we won’t need more grammar schools.

Why do we need to build more schools when we can just give more money to existing ones? Why, at a time where funding is in crisis, are we investing in new grammars and not existing schools?

When I entered teaching in 2005, most classes had a learning support assistant (you may know them as a TA).

These people were incredibly important – they worked with SEND students, BESD (behavioural, social and emotional difficulties) students, assisted with students who had been absent or were having trouble accessing the curriculum and they did this on minimal pay, with minimal complaint.

This government has cut spending on education to the point where these TAs are rare, or simply don’t exist.

The excessive cuts to education also mean that many schools are now in a situation where they are considering making cuts in the curriculum and getting rid of specific subjects, usually the arts – the subjects that make them well-rounded thinkers, evaluative learners and creative, motivated individuals.

Why the arts? Well, because they don’t add “rigour”!

These decisions are being made every damn day, because the government have headteachers over a barrel.

You must succeed. You must get above average pass rates. You must push out students with E-Baccs. If you don’t, we will academise you.

Are we here to provide exam factories that churn out identikit students?

Don’t be blinded by May. She wants you to be blinkered and she wants you to ignore the massive demolition of education. Don’t give her what she wants.”

 

Academies – another brick in the wall of privatisation

In the not-so-sleepy seaside resort of Hastings the parents are angry.

Not just kiss-me-quick hat or candy floss angry… they are absolutely furious.

They are waging a war against education overlords which promises to match a similar battle fought here 950 years ago.

If the parents lose, the victims won’t be Saxon warriors… but small children.

The board of governors of Castledown Primary School wants their 400 pupil school to become an academy by September 2017.

They claim the school is failing by virtue of its recent SAT results, while failing to recognise its long held excellent reputation for music and the arts.

Now parents have formed a Hands Off Castledown group to fight the plans, which many see as a backdoor to privatisation and cherry picking of elite academic pupils.

In January, Castledown formally announced its intention to join the Ark Academy Trust. But parents, teachers and local residents were only told of the decision via a letter explaining a six week consultation period. And there have been no consultations on any alternatives to Ark or academisation.

The Ark group already runs several other schools in the Hastings area. Nationally it had an income of £21.9 million and assets of £31.3 million in the year ending August 2015 – the last year for which full accounts are available.

Its income and assets are increasing by about £2.5 million a year.

Richard Sage, chairman of governors at Castledown, said the governors decided after meetings with various trusts that Ark was best for the school.

“We felt it was important to move rapidly to ensure the school is delivering the highest possible quality education for Castledown pupils as soon as possible,” he said.

Castledown is in the bottom 10% of schools for 2016 SATS exam results.

But according to Hands Off Castledown, results were poor because the 2014 curriculum was implemented two years too late. Pupils sitting the exams in 2016 had not received up-to-date teaching.

Additionally, the previous Ofsted report in 2013 marked the school as Good.

Hands Off Castledown says it has spoken to parents who removed their children from other Ark academies because of its history of imposing restrictive and regimental behaviour policies, which many believe are not suitable for young children.

On 15 February, Hastings Borough Council gave its full backing to the Hands Off Castledown campaign.

Council leader Peter Chowney put forward a motion to the full council which said: “We believe by taking schools out of local authority control, and reducing the powers and responsibilities of governing boards, educational performances are not necessarily improved and a less rewarding educational experience for students can be created through a narrower curriculum.

“There are now currently only two schools left in Hastings that have not converted to academies, and at one of these, Castledown Primary, there is now a proposal to convert this school to an academy too.

“This council therefore supports parents in their campaign to oppose the academisation of Castledown without any alternatives being presented, and calls for the current plans to be to be halted immediately so that parents, governors, staff, and other stakeholders can explore all possible options to improve standards and effectiveness of teaching at the school.”

The motion was carried unanimously.

Councillor Tania Charman even suggested the school governors should resign.

“They oversaw Castledown’s decline,” she said, “So should not decide its future.”

Campaigner Louise Hersee has delivered a petition of over 1,000 signatures to East Sussex County Council, opposing the academisation.

Hands Off Castledown is simply calling for a halt to this consultation with Ark, in order for every stakeholder group to have a proper discussion about the school’s rapid decline and then to look at all the alternative solutions available,” she said.

“This is extremely reasonable and justified.

“All over the country schools are turning into academies, and all over the country parents are wondering why this is happening.

“Here in Hastings we believe that Ark Schools is a bad fit for Castledown and that there are other options!”

Nationally, the imposition of academy status on many supposedly “failing schools” has been met with similar outrage and opposition as that currently evident in Hastings.

Many believe that academies are part of a Conservative government mantra to introduce privatisation and “grammar school type” selection on state schools.

They point to the profit margins of many academy trusts and the salaries paid to their headteachers.

One head of a primary academy chain took home a salary in excess of £200,000, after being handed a massive pay rise.

Sir Greg Martin, executive head of Durand Academy in Stockwell, south London, saw his salary rise by 56 per cent to a total of £200,822 – due to the fact he runs several schools.

He also received £28,316 in pension contributions, which took his overall remuneration package to £229,138.

Sir Greg – who is planning a boarding school in the Sussex countryside – also earned a further £160,000 from a company set up to run the school’s sports and fitness centre last year.

This is more than the Prime Minister and many city bankers.

Last year delegates at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers conference in Liverpool, heard that growing numbers of heads were now also earning more than the Prime Minister’s salary of £149,440 a year.

“When schools were under local council control, it would have been unthinkable as well as impossible that a headteacher, of even a group of schools, could earn more than a director of education, let alone the Secretary of State for Education, let alone the Prime Minister,” Simon Clarkson from Leicestershire told the conference.

“We need to guard against the rot of greed. Executive headteachers and headteachers have looked at their budgets and I am afraid some have decided to pay themselves excessive salaries.”

Figures showed that in 2015, a total of 41 heads were earning more than £142,000 a year.

Mr Clarkson said: “Our state schools are paid for by the public. They need to be accountable. When I started teaching, especially in the state sector, there was little or no corruption.”

He added: “Let me remind you whose money is being used to do this… ours!”

So what are academies?

  • Academies receive their funding directly from the government, rather than through local authorities like other state funded schools. They also operate independently of local authorities and the National Curriculum.
  • There are two types: converter academies (those previously with ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ Ofsted grades that have converted to academy status) and sponsored academies (mostly underperforming schools converting to academy status and run by sponsors).
  • In 2016 there were around 5,200 academies open across all age groups. About 3,600 are converter academies. A further 700 are in development.
  • Evidence on the performance of academies compared to local authority schools is mixed. One analysis found little difference in GCSE performance between academies and similar local authority schools. There’s little evidence available which looks at primary schools.
  • Academies are directly accountable to the Education Secretary, while all other state-funded schools are accountable to local authorities. Both are inspected by Ofsted.
  • Academies are run by academy trusts and don’t have to follow the national curriculum and have greater freedom to set their own term times and admissions. They also have more freedom over employing unqualified teachers.

A 2014 survey of academies by the DfE found that 87% say they are now buying in services previously provided by the Local Authority from elsewhere, 55% have changed their curriculum, 8% have changed the length of their school day and 4% have changed their school terms.

In 2015, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee criticised the DfE for allowing academy chains to grow in size without independent assessments of their capacity and capability to do so.

And 17 sponsors had been formally paused from being able to expand further because of concerns over the performance of their schools by the DfE.

Ofsted Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw raised concerns with the government in March 2016 regarding the performance of seven multi-academy trusts.

He said that “much more needs to be done to reduce the variation in standards between the best and worst academy trusts”.

Back on the Sussex coast, the Tory MP for Hastings and Rye, Amber Rudd, who is also the Home Secretary, has not become involved in the battle over Castledown School, although she is a known supporter of academies.

But shadow education minister Angela Rayner MP is a vociferous opponent of academies and grammar schools.

Last September, she said: “Tory academy plans are in complete chaos. 

“The impossible job the Department for Education has set itself in trying to directly run thousands of schools from Whitehall is fully exposed as we learn over half of existing academy chains have refused to take on schools and 70% of inadequate academies have been left languishing with poor academy chains.

“Forcing all schools to become academies and introducing even more disruption into the system with new grammar schools will make this situation even worse.

“The Tories need to get a hold on this once and for all or it will be our children who pay the price.”