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Betsy DeVos' visit will be in a bubble of privatisation

On her UK visit, the US education secretary will see only see the privatisation of schools through those who actively pursue it. She'll see nothing of the true scandal

Betsy DeVos_Editoral

On her UK visit, the US education secretary will see only see the privatisation of schools through those who actively pursue it. She'll see nothing of the true scandal

The visit by Donald Trump’s secretary of state for education, Betsy DeVos, to England this week is about reinforcing a damaging privatisation agenda in both countries.

DeVos has never worked in state education, but spent millions of her own dollars backing voucher schemes and other forms of ‘school choice’ policy in her home state of Michigan.

Around 80 per cent of the charter schools – similar to academies – in Michigan are now operated by for-profit companies.

But Michigan is falling further behind on test scores, on-time high school graduation rates and getting young adults through college or post-secondary training.

This approach is not working in the US, and it’s not working here.

In England, study after study shows that the academies and free schools reforms have not only failed to deliver meaningful school improvement, but have also failed to deliver the freedoms promised for schools.

A recent study by the LSE concluded that schools run by multi-academy trusts “have less freedom”.

Similarly, a new joint report by the Sutton Trust and the National Foundation for Educational Research on free schools concluded that the programme is failing to fulfil its original purpose of offering “innovative and parent-led approaches to the curriculum”.

According to the report “over the past three years, free schools have become less innovative, less parent-led, and increasingly set-up by academy chains.”

In the name of school choice scores of free schools, studio schools and University Technology Colleges have opened at huge cost to the taxpayer only to close down within a few years.

In both the US and England, privatisation of the school systems has also increased the scope for financial mismanagement and scandal, again with disastrous consequences for communities.

However, during her visit to England, DeVos will see nothing of that; instead, she will be hobnobbing with the great and the good of the academy movement.

She is going to visit Grey Coat Hospital School, attended by the daughters of former prime minister David Cameron and former education secretary – and architect of the coalition government’s academies programme – Michael Gove.

She will also visit Pimlico Primary, which is run by Future Academies Trust, the academy sponsor set up by Lord John Nash, who was minister for schools until 2017.

DeVos will also meet with the current schools ,inister Lord Theodore Agnew, another founder of an academy chain – the Inspiration Academies Trust. Indeed, Lord Agnew was also briefly a director at Lord Nash’s chain before resigning after just two months.

Interestingly, a note in the most recent accounts for Future Academies Trust show a huge donation from Lord Nash of over £330,000. Wouldn’t it be great if all schools could rely on an annual injection of funds on this scale in these straitened times?

These internecine connections reflect the fact that our school system is being overseen by a small clique of individuals with an ideological commitment to pursuing privatisation.

Over the past few years, these people have let down teachers, parents and pupils on a truly huge scale. As well as overseeing a hugely chaotic and expensive set of reforms in the name of school choice, the government has created an unprecedented funding crisis and a crisis in teacher recruitment and retention.

These are the defining features of our current government’s record on education and the ones on which they should be judged.

Though we don’t hold out much hope that this will happen, the visit of Betsy DeVos this week should be an opportunity for reflection for both governments on what really makes a difference to schools, teachers and pupils.

Mary Bousted is joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union. She tweets @MaryBoustedNEU

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