Arise, Sir Andrew Carter. Knight of the realm for services to education. Headteacher, since 1988, of South Farnham Junior School – a success story that involves quadrupling the number of pupils on roll in that period, becoming one of the country’s first teaching schools, supporting 30 or more other struggling institutions and being the lead author of the Carter Review of Initial Teacher Training.
On receiving his knighthood in 2014, he said: “If your school is doing well, you should make a wider contribution.”
True to form, Sir Andrew’s contribution to the discussion around teacher training last week was a bold one. Using his platform at the Academies Show to speak on the subject of funding and CPD, his recommendation is that schools who are struggling to pay for their teachers’ professional development should charge parents £1 a week to cover the costs.
Just £1 a week doesn’t sound like much – £39 pounds a school year. That’s less than a Netflix subscription. And we know we’re worth more to children and families than a Netflix subscription. Of that, we are in no doubt. And yet…
Sir Andrew went on to say that such a levy/surcharge/subscription/fundraiser (delete as appropriate) could raise £60,000 a year. That’s £1,538.46 each week of the school year. Divided over the whole calendar year, it’s £1,152.84 each week, including summer holidays and Christmas.
Only a large school could raise these funds. Even then we are not asking parents for £1 a week but £1 a week per child, and immediately it’s clear that the idea is already inherently unfair to single-parent families.
But there is another way in which this idea is unfair to families. For better-off families, it isn’t a choice between Netflix and well-trained teachers, but for poorer families, it will be. Regardless of your view of the relative value of a TV subscription and a trained classroom professional, it is inherently unjust to present some with a sacrifice others will not have to make.
And that sacrifice – given, in any case, that the question is not really about Netflix when we live in a country where many have to choose between heating or eating, and many feed their children at the expense of their own sustenance – it is absolutely, unquestionably predictable that schools in the poorest catchments will raise the least money by appealing to parents.
These are the schools already most likely to be on the wrong side of Ofsted judgments – the very same schools already struggling most to recruit and retain teachers – and this travesty of a policy suggestion will do nothing but entrench the inequality at the heart of our school system.
Every time I hear a politician or adviser recommending passing around the collection plate, I imagine being passed a sick bucket. Sir Andrew Carter is an unusually regular stimulant of that particular mental picture. In November 2016, he suggested schools could charge parents up to £500 per school year for anything "over and above what the state funds", without being very clear about what that might be.
To reduce our offer in parallel with reduced funding is not particularly controversial. Indeed, what better way to make clear to parents the true cost of the government’s policies – if indeed that was what we wanted to do. No more lunchtime or after-school clubs. No more revision sessions. No more six-yearly data reports. I’d add no more school visits to the list, but these have already suffered, and not because of "health and safety gone mad", but specifically because we have been charging for those for years. Shall we let the same happen to our school libraries? After all, there is no legal duty for a school to have one.
No, it isn’t controversial. But it should make our blood boil. And the reason it should is that, like all privatisation or marketisation of services, it is exclusive of the poorest and most vulnerable.
As teachers, to top it off, accepting Sir Andrew’s latest folly means accepting that that by the contingency of which school we work for, someone’s CPD will suffer. If not yours, mine. If not mine, yours. We can’t all work in South Farnham, after all.
Reject this creeping marketisation
I reject this creeping marketisation and I ask you to reject it with me. Sir Andrew Carter would like us to emulate what independent schools do. Why not go the whole hog and go lead an independent school, Sir Andrew? Why not leave those of us with a public sector ethos to fight for the public sector and for social justice? We can take it from here.
Consider the success trumpeted that South Farnham Junior School has increased its pupil numbers fourfold under Sir Carter’s leadership. I am certain the school is practically perfect in every way, and yet given that we are not suggesting that he has personally sired this population increase, what an odd thing to praise. That the school has kept its status despite a boom in pupil numbers is worth celebrating, but the school is far from alone in that.
The school’s 2012 Ofsted report tells us everything we need to know about the position of privilege Sir Andrew speaks from on matters educational. “Very few pupils are known to be eligible for free school meals.” Not only is the catchment at the source of his growing influence a well-off one, it is one that has remained well-off despite the 400 per cent increase in pupil numbers he has overseen.
This begs two questions: to what extent has South Farnham benefited by attracting students with high economic status and correlative cultural capital from other schools, perhaps the very same schools he is then praised for supporting? And to what extent has marketisation and parent choice already led us to a society of isolated communities along socioeconomic lines?
I would never denigrate the work of any teachers or school leaders. Education is a tough game, no matter where you do the job. I do however wish that our assessments were more honest. Too often, we are comparing apples with oranges, when we’ve already decided what our favourite fruit is. This is the inexorable logic of the market at play, and contrary to the political zeitgeist, it is not lowering the bar to expect our accountability system to take provenance into account.
Damian Hinds’ recent announcements on changes to school accountability are most welcome. Underpinning them is a shift from judgment and blame to assessment and support. It’s music to my ears, but it will be impossible to deliver on if we accept Sir Andrew’s vision for education under austerity. Indeed, it will be impossible to deliver under austerity at all.
This is perhaps the most encouraging thing of all. Having let the punitive accountability genie out of the bottle, there can be no putting it back. What will invariably come to pass is the realisation of the fundamental inequity of our school system – one that simultaneously ignores the realities outside the school gates and blames schools for failing to overcome them.
Yes, Hinds’ project can only put the lie to austerity as a whole, or return our school system to pre-Govian contextual value-added. And the determining factor will be whether we accept the privatisation of our profession espoused by Sir Andrew, and its perpetuation of inequality, or a collective vision of education as a rising tide that lifts all boats.
Demand better for everyone
So here is our choice, finally writ large. Will we take the silver pieces offered by Sir Andrew and wash our hands of our communities’ struggles for an easier professional life, or will we stand with our colleagues and our neighbourhoods to demand better for everyone?
No sudden epiphany has lead this government to rethink all education policy since 1988. Let’s be clear. An epic recruitment and retention crisis has forced their hand. To get there, tens of thousands of teachers have suffered redundancies, avoidable mental health problems and punitive working conditions that have forced them out. We have collectively laboured under such fear or delusion that we did not stand with them. We have to be honest with ourselves. We allowed it.
So as the fear lifts a little and a little freedom is dangled before us, what will we continue to allow?
JL Dutaut is a teacher of politics and citizenship and co-editor of Flip the System UK: a teachers’ manifesto, published by Routledge