Through all my 60 years involved in or campaigning for education, I have never known a situation so dire or a prospect so bleak as that facing education today.
This is largely due to the actions and policies of an ideologically driven government more extreme than any previous administration, Margaret Thatcher’s included.
While its most extreme proposal, to impose academisation on all schools, has been the subject of what some describe as a “U-turn”, it remains to be seen how far the government will retreat from its original proposals.
The latest proposal has been preceded by a series of actions and policies unworthy of any government claiming to want to provide quality education for all of the rising generation. The effect of those actions and policies continues and needs to be campaigned against, as well as what might have to be done in respect of imposed academisation.
We have faced hypocrisy from the prime minister and others over “social mobility” and “localism”, cynicism from the chancellor of the exchequer over funding and cuts.
Meanwhile the present education secretary, Nicky Morgan, having been at the heart of the wrecking of the previous system for teacher education, has shown utter complacency over the serious and growing crisis in teacher recruitment, while simultaneously creating turmoil and misery in primary schools with curriculum and assessment proposals, and consternation and anxiety in secondary schools over GCSE reform and a new method of assessing school performance. She and her fellow ministers have been economical with the truth when talking about the achievements of academies and their alleged autonomy, and been virtually silent about the outstanding achievements of most primary schools.
Instead of seeking to secure the agreement and cooperation of those on whom they must rely to deliver education for all, ministers have regarded the teachers’ unions as the enemy, to be bashed and dismissed as a “blob”.
In the wake of all that, we now have a government intent on “rolling back the state” (and doing so under cover of “eliminating the deficit”), proposing to roll the state forward by nationalising all our schools, for that is what “imposed academisation” amounts to.
The unfolding of the extreme proposal was bizarre. It was announced by the chancellor in May and then confirmed just a fortnight ago by David Cameron at PMQs.
And then, when the public was distracted by local election results, Ms Morgan announced that the government had changed its plans.
She claimed that the staunch opposition of Conservative backbenchers had influenced the decision, but the concern and opposition of a number of Conservative local education leaders will also have shaken her. She didn’t dwell on the uproar that had greeted the proposal in the profession and among parents and schools, but the opposition in those quarters would undoubtedly have had an effect on Conservative MPs and education leaders.
The government decided to impose academisation after failing to get the large majority of primary schools, and a substantial number of secondary schools, to opt for academy status. Ministers claimed that this meant freeing schools from bureaucrats in town halls. The freedom they would not give is to let schools choose whether to become academies.
Its proposal had been made in the face of the findings of the Education Select Committee, and other bodies, that there is no evidence the academisation of schools raises standards.
Regrettably, we cannot expect an early change of government to one with different and better policies, because the present government will be in place for the next four years. If the EU referendum in June results in a victory for the Brexit camp, David Cameron will almost certainly lose his job, and George Osborne will not be the person who replaces him. The successor would go farther to the right than Mr Cameron, and would bring back selection, urged on by rampant right-wing MPs. Only something truly catastrophic happening within the Conservative Party would open up the possibility of a change of government before the 2020 general election.
There could be trouble ahead in the House of Lords if Labour, the Lib Dems and independent peers were to oppose the government, but they can only delay the government’s plans. They must certainly be urged to do so, and every effort should be made to support the opposition in the Commons and to try to secure support from dissident Tory MPs.
But the main effort to stop the worst of the government’s intentions will have to come from an effort to mobilise opinion among the general public, especially with parents.
While the task will be formidable, I believe that recent events have shown that this government can be forced to change course in the face of public outrage and opposition. We have seen that happening in recent times in respect of tax credits, the bedroom tax, disability payments and other benefits, and pension reform. Despite Ms Morgan declaring that there would be no “reverse gear”, she now seems to have found one. It is not yet clear how far the government will depart from its original intentions, though they clearly remain obsessed with academisation. It will be necessary, therefore, to continue campaigning on that matter and to do the utmost to defend schools from what undoubtedly will be government pressure to academise.
It is especially encouraging that the NUT and ATL are seeking to form a new education union, which will enable its members to play an even more effective part in campaigning, and hopefully motivate other teacher unions to join them.
Apart from these encouraging developments, large public meetings are being held, two petitions have been widely supported, and activism groups, such as Reclaiming Education, have been organising.
Above all, everything possible should be done to involve parents. Teachers do not need to be told of the effects that the government’s actions are having and will have in education, but they certainly need to tell parents what is happening, for they will be powerful allies. I do not think that they will be in favour of strike action, but I believe there are many ways in which their support and participation can be gained, especially by making use of social media, and well-organised petitioning.
We should also take note of and use recent statements by Ofsted’s Sir Michael Wilshaw, who had the temerity to expose the failures of academy chains and Free Schools. He clearly intends to go out with a bang rather than a whimper, so watch this space.
We must seek to secure a sense of great public outrage on education, especially when it comes to the continued academisation of schools, for that is a measure that would do nothing to address the serious problems in education that I have referred to. It is essential in mobilising parental and public support that we show that education matters, because it is fundamental to virtually all aspects of our lives, our society and our country, and to every citizen, young or old. If we can do that, we will succeed.