Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State for Education, delivering a speech at Policy Exchange. Photo: Flickr Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State for Education, delivering a speech at Policy Exchange. Photo: Flickr

As the Tories plan to turn every school into an academy, Alastair Stephens takes a look at the motives behind the drive

The Tories have always hated the idea of democratic control of education. You have to understand this to understand the significance of their decision to forceably turn every school in England into an academy. It is yet another coup against democracy in the country.

They want to force 40% of secondary schools, and a majority of primary schools, still under local authorities, to be handed over to private ‘sponsors’ mostly backed by businesses. There is of course no democratic control over these schools. They answer to their sponsors and are paid directly by Whitehall. Even the voices of parents will be excluded as they also wish to do away with elected parent governors. Instead, parents who have the right ‘skills’ will be appointed onto boards.

In the beginning

The Tories hated the first introduction of local democracy and state education in this country and plotted to end it almost as soon as it came about. The 1870 Education Act, known as the Forster Act, was the most important measure introduced by William Gladstone’s government.

It legislated for the creation of a state school system. Until then, most schooling had been provided by ‘voluntary’ schools, mostly owned and controlled by the Church of England. The Act allowed for the creation of elected Local School Boards with the power to levy a tax (the rates) to build and administer new schools where the existing provision was inadequate.

The Act was rather more popular than expected and soon there were more than 2,000 local school boards. They proved particularly popular amongst so-called non-conformists, followers of Protestant denominations other than the state religion (the Church of England), the largest of which were the Methodists and Baptists. They had long resented the Church of England’s domination of education, but generally favoured secular schools rather than creating their own church schools.

School boom

The new Local School Boards very rapidly built thousands of new schools across the country. They can still be seen today and many are still in use. Those in inner city areas are quite distinctive, if slightly forbidding, usually large brick buildings of three or four stories with large windows. In London they often helpfully have the letters LSB (London School Board, the greatest of them all) on the side of the building.

The School Boards were the most democratic institutions of the state at the time, even if the electorate was restricted to the heads of rate-paying households. Most women were excluded but they included some (mostly widows), who were able to vote and stand in elections. Long before the suffragettes appeared, women were participating in the School Boards and they were most women’s first involvement in politics.

The Local School Boards were also more representative of their communities. Mostly covering urban communities, they were also elected by a Cumulative Vote system in which electors have as many votes as their are seats available, but in which the elector can distribute them as they like, allowing for ‘plumping’ (giving all their votes to one candidate). This crude form of Proportional Representation meant that minority voices could be elected, including socialists.

The Tories’ revenge

The Tories, the self-appointed, and often fanatical defenders of the privileges (and these were real and legal) of the Church of England, hated the Forster Act. It challenged the educational monopoly of the Church and they despised that the new secular schools frequently showed up the inadequacies of the Church schools. They passed a number of measures to aid Church schools but they had to wait until the so-called Cockerton Judgement (which ruled against the maintenance by Local School Boards of secondary schools which had been established in some areas) to legislate.

In 1902, the government led by Lord Salisbury (the last British Prime Minister to sit in the Lords) passed another Education Act (known after its mover as the Balfour Act, though he is now more famous for his later wartime ‘Declaration’).

It abolished the Local School Boards and handed their responsibilities to the County Councils which had been established in 1888. These would run schools as Local Education Authorities (LEAs). The County Councils were much more remote institutions (just 328 of them replaced the 2,600 Local School Boards) and were elected by First-Past-The-Post. In much of the country, they were dominated by the sort of gentry who had long dominated local government, elected on the votes of rural areas into which the towns were now often subsumed.

The most controversial aspect of the Act though, was the provision of state funding for Church schools, mostly run by the Church of England. This infuriated non-conformists, who despite their religious evangelicalism, mostly favoured a secular and democratically-run education system.

The Act was one of the most controversial pieces of legislation passed in this era and it was endlessly campaigned against. It is widely held to have been a major contributing, and even the most important, factor in the disastrous defeat that the Tories suffered just four years later, when they were swept away in the Liberal landslide of 1906.

The new Liberal administration moved to repeal the Balfour Act but this was blocked by the Lords, with its inbuilt Tory majority. By the time it became possible to overcome this, things had moved on. The Balfour Act stood and largely governed education for the rest of the 20th century.

After the First World War, politics started to divide along class lines, and the culture wars of the Victorian period, of which education was a frontline, abated. In part this was due to the fact that religion ceased to be such a divisive issue. The two main parties now, the Conservatives and Labour, had settled into something of a consensus on education.

From Butler to Baker

Such was the level of agreement that when the Conservatives introduced a new system based on ‘intelligence testing’, this was accepted by Labour, and even embraced by some in the party.

The Education Act of 1944 (known as the Butler Act after R.A. Butler) introduced a two tier system of elite grammar schools and secondary moderns (officially it was a three tier system, but the third element, technical schools, was quietly forgotten about). Children were streamed into one or other of the streams in an exam sat at the age of 11 (known as the 11-Plus). While 20% of children went to grammar schools the rest were consigned to often second-rate, and underfunded, secondary modern schools.

This discriminatory nature of the system was resented by many working-class parents, and those middle-class parents whose children failed the 11-Plus. This backlash along with the more egalitarian atmosphere of the 1960s meant that the 1944 Act was not destined to last.

Some LEAs, with London and Leicestershire in the lead, decided to move away from this system and introduced comprehensive schools, attended by all children of all abilities, something they were allowed to do under the Butler Act. The Labour government, elected in 1964 pushed this further and worked to spread comprehensive schools across the country. This process continued under both Labour and Conservative governments, even when Margaret Thatcher was Education Secretary, under whom, ironically, more grammar schools disappeared than under any other Secretary of State.

By time the she came to power as Prime Minister there were few grammar schools left to save.

The Thatcher counter-revolution

By 1979 Britain had an education system in which schools were financed and administered by local councils. Schools decided what and how to teach, exams were run by independent exam boards and schools were inspected by the independent body, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Schools (HMI).

It was a flexible system that innovated easily, as it did in the 1960 and 1970s when new student-centred forms of teaching were introduced, overthrowing the decades-old orthodoxy of rote learning. Such methods are now considered standard, but were widely rejected by Tories who condemned them as being ‘trendy’ and ‘left-wing’.

It wasn’t just the teaching methods that the Tories objected too. They were also infuriated by left-wing local councils that were introducing policies to combat racism, sexism and homophobia. It is easy to forget now the fanaticism with which the Tories opposed these policies or the level of hysteria they whipped up against them.

Just as a hundred years before the Tories had hated the Forster Act and the Local School Boards that it created, they now hated the comprehensive school system built by the LEAs, the institutions that the Tories had themselves created a hundred years previously to rein in the too ‘radical’ Local School Boards.

However, the consensus was powerful around education and the role of local authorities seemed sacrosanct, as was the professional autonomy of teachers. Even Thatcher was wary of challenging these. Her education secretary Kenneth Baker had no such qualms.

Assault on schools

Kenneth Baker’s Education Reform Act was an assault on the status quo and a lot more radical than Thatcher had expected. It was a power grab by the centre. Whitehall took control of what was taught when they created the National Curriculum, seizing most of the school day.

The Tories later replaced the relatively apolitical HMI with an all-too political Ofsted and created a system of assessments and league tables, which were widely condemned as having nothing to do with learning and everything to with competition and the market.

They also tried to prise schools out of the hands of local authorities by offering them inducements to opt out and become grant maintained i.e. directly funded from Whitehall. They also enabled the creation of City Technology Colleges, another set of schools directly run and sponsored by businesses (and all for the paltry sum of £2 million, less than 10% of the cost of setting up a new school).

These last measures where remarkably unsuccessful. Fewer than 4% of schools opted to become grant maintained and only a few dozen CTCs were established. With Ofsted and the league tables deeply controversial and the failure to break the LEAs (though they had removed further education from their remit), the Tories attempts at reform of the country’s schools were running into the ground by the time they were swept away in the Labour landslide of 1997.

Thatcherism saved by Blair

As with so many other Thatcherite policies, the floundering neoliberal assault on education was saved by Blair. Rather than bury the Tories’ reforms, New Labour revived and repackaged them. They sweetened the pill with large increases in spending, but the medicine was still the same.

Those schools formally still under LEAs were deluged with orders from Whitehall, as the Department for Education took ever more control of what and how children were taught. The assault on the LEAs was also ramped up. The CTCs were rebranded as academies and the whole failed program was turbocharged.

Ever greater inducements were offered to sponsors. Then existing schools were allowed to opt to become academies. There was also a drive to increase the number of faith schools, something which flew in the face of 150 years of the secularisation of education. To schools run by the Church of England, Catholic Church (and some Jewish denominations) were added a host of schools run by other religious groups including fringe evangelical churches, some of which wanted to teach creationism.

So desperate were they to find sponsors that it ended in the ‘schools for peerages’ scandal.

Cameron and Gove

New Labour was more successful in pushing this policy than the Tories and everything was set for another massive assault. When the Tories came to power in 2010 a large part of the secondary school system had been handed over to a motley assortment of big business fronts and others with an agenda. It was all too easy to push for an even greater expansion of the programme and to simply roll over local opposition.

Into the mix was added free schools. Groups of anybodies were to be allowed to set up independent state schools (funded from Whitehall again). As was expected, most of the free schools set up were by middle-class parents in areas where additional schools were not actually needed. This was driven forward by an Education Secretary, Michael Gove, whom it turns out even Cameron thought was an extremist. He, however, managed to alienate people to such a degree that he had to be moved into other things.

It had to wait for the Tories to win an election outright for them to have another big push. The latest announcements that all schools will be forced to become academies is the final rolling back of the principle of local democratic control of the school system.

The last vestiges of democratic accountability in individual schools will also be removed as elected parent governors are also set to be axed. The only oversight will come from appointees and those wth the ‘right skills’. It seems to be likely that these people will be middle-class, and that the ‘right skills’ will also in fact mean the ‘right attitudes’. No prizes as to what those will be in a school system run by big business.

A fight for democracy

The Tories’ moves to forceably turn every school in the country into academies will have many implications: educational, financial and political, from the back door return of selection, to the implementation of cuts.

But a key question which could disappear in this is the question of democracy. Education is a central part of national life and a key responsibility of the state. The idea that responsibility for it is not a ‘great office’ of state is a post-imperial delusion. Even at the height of the empire, education was a controversial subject. Its power to excite great passions hasn’t changed, for it is about the education and socialisation of the exit generation.

Left and right obviously disagree about the nature and purpose of education and to a lesser degree how it should be delivered. But further disagreement exists over who should take these decisions and how. For much of the 20th century there was a level of consensus on this. A consensus that was broken by the Tory assault on democracy in the 1980s.

The question of the governance of education and the way the education is controlled in this country is not just a question of pedagogy or funding. It is a question of democracy. A democracy in which the matter of education is effectively relegated to private bodies to decide, is a weaker democracy.

The restoration of democracy has to be demanded. This means not just that this is a return to the previous dispensation, a return to 1870 or 1902. Local, democratic control of education, something enormously eroded over the last three decades, has to be fought for as part of an overhaul of democracy in this country, a most centralised and unaccountable state.

Alastair Stephens

Alastair Stephens has been a socialist his whole adult life and has been active in Unison and the TGWU. He studied Russian at Portsmouth, Middle East Politics at SOAS and writes regularly for the Counterfire website.