The campaign against school funding cuts has attracted a lot of attention, but a socialist education policy can do much more than solve the funding crisis argues Judy Cox
Type the words ‘scandal’ and ‘academy’ into your search engine and you will find hundreds of stories of wrongdoing – cheating in exams, huge salaries paid to ‘CEOs’, lucrative contracts handed to family members, eye-watering expenses claims, children excluded to prop up league table places – such stories have become all too familiar.
Take the Wakefield City Academies Trust for example. It was named as a ‘top-performing’ academy sponsor by then-education secretary, Nicky Morgan, just three years ago. She handed the Trust £500,000 to improve standards across the North. The Trust is now one of the worst performing academy chains in the country. But this slump in performance did not stop the Trust’s interim Chief Executive, Mike Ramsey, from paying himself £82,000 over a three-month period. The Trust had already paid nearly £440,000 to IT and admin companies owned by Ramsey and his daughter. The Trust belatedly announced it would hand over its schools to another sponsor, but only after transferring £1.5 million from its schools to its central coffers.
The worst Academy stories, however, are those which involve cruelty to children. Not just the sent-home-for-the-wrong-socks absurdities, but real cruelty. At the Hastings Academy last week an 11-year-old girl was forced to sit in blood-soaked clothes when her teacher refused to allow her to go to the toilet after she got her first period (she had not paid £15 for a doctor’s pass). The Outwood Grange Academies Trust is one of many multi-academy trusts which lock children into ‘isolation booths’ for hours on end, forcing the children to be still and silent, looking straight ahead, for a complete school day.
There cannot be many towns or cities left that do not have their own story of academy scandal, of schools turned into ruthless businesses delivering huge pay-outs to unscrupulous bosses. The list of academy failures grows weekly, yet very few Academy CEOs ever face any sanctions. At least £745 million has been spent on Michael Gove’s vanity Academy project even though many Academy trusts have proved to be more efficient at syphoning funds into their own pockets than at raising standards for the children in their care.
Children, parents and teachers are all being failed by a system that focuses on achieving in tests at the expense of well-being, that assesses children and teachers on a narrow range of achievements which contradicts all the accepted pedagogy that children learn best through experience, joy and discovery. Tory funding cuts aimed at punishing parents without jobs are turning Nursery provision into a luxury out of the reach of the children who need it most.
Ofsted is now a mechanism for enforcing whatever political axe the Tory government chooses to grind – heresy hunting schools that are not enforcing ‘British values’, or are ‘failing’ tests, or are ‘teaching to tests’. Unbelievably, Ofsted are now claiming that they will not judge schools purely on their performance in tests. But Ofsted is at the very heart of the system that punishes teachers financially and in terms of their careers if they do not push enough children to achieve their ‘expected levels’. Schools’ efforts to construct broad, relevant and engaging curriculums are overshadowed by the constant testing of children. Skilled, creative and compassionate teachers have to make sure that enough five-year-olds can read ‘nonsense words’ or that enough 11-year-olds can identify a ‘frontal abverbial’.
A future Labour government must promise to rid us of rip-off academies and free schools. We need new legislation to enable the immediate return of all academies to local authority control, with assets immediately returned to public ownership. But Labour must also promise to dump SATs, league tables and Ofsted, and the whole baggage of prescriptive, hierarchical practises inflicted on children for far too long. Children should be allowed to learn through play, through discovery and experimentation, not drilled to pass meaningless tests. Schools should be liberated from league tables and punitive inspections and given the freedom to put children’s well-being at the centre of everything they do. Of course, public schools should not be charities – but why allow the wealthy to segregate their children off from the rest of us and buy their way into the private-school cabals that dominate too many institutions? End all selection, dismantle the private school system and let the playing fields of Eton become just another school sports pitch in a genuinely comprehensive education system.
Our children’s education is at the ideological mercy of Tory bigots who sustain a fantasy of returning to an authoritarian, repressive and imagined past. Tory austerity is devastating the inclusive, creative education provision built up over decades. Angela Rayner and the Labour Party should be as outraged as parents and teachers and promise to deliver a radical vision for a new education system. Every child gets just one chance at school. Labour must start campaigning now to ensure that no more children are failed by ideological bigots.
Judy Cox is a lifelong socialist writer and speaker. Now a teacher in East London, Judy was on the editorial board of International Socialism and has written amongst other things on Marx’s theory of alienation, Rosa Luxemburg’s economic theory, William Blake and Robin Hood.