09 February 2011


I expect the annoying clatter of glass, or the grumble of wheely bins being pulled by grumpy men in flourescent jackets in cobbled back alleys every other tuesday morning. It's nearly light at 7 now: not enough for the world to have colour, but enough for it to be washed in grey.

The neighbour knocks. She is worried the slate on the kerb is from her roof. I tell her it isn’t (because it’s from ours :-(). She is old and has those eyes that always look puzzled and afraid at the same time: because the world no longer makes any sense and she doesn’t know who to trust or listen to anymore. She won’t take any advice anyway because she wants her own control of the world back. It must be so frightening to lose your grip like that: for the world and its meanings to draw in and become incomprehensible, till your safe world shrinks to the boundaries of your own house, and then things, even in that world, no longer seem to make sense: the tv remote, the combi boiler, the washing machine, the fuse box; all a mystery, a hopeless mess of fiddly incomprehensible buttons. Mastery of your place is a big part of who you are. If I wasn’t in Lancaster among familiar things, I wouldn’t know who I was either this morning; my head is a fog of headache and cotton wool struggling to behave like proper neurons. This is not good.......

Today they will pretend there is a leak at the power station; people will talk earnestly into radios - in studiedly calm voices - and assure each other that all that can be done is being done. The public will ring and ask me what to do…and I will feel like telling them. Men will be placed on standby, as the pretend radioactivity drifts north towards sheep; their jackets will already be fluorescent, as, shortly, will be the sheep. Hey Ho…..

06 February 2011


Thatcher began her attack on the state education system by doing everything she could to undermine comprehensive schools in the 80’s. Blair carried on where Thatcher left off and paved the way for the privatisation of education. Cameron, Clegg and Gove are now pushing the policy to its logical conclusion by inviting all schools to leave the state sector and apply for Academy status, which frees them from the control of local education authorities and allows them, barring a few legal constraints, to teach whatever they like.

Politically naïve heads and governing bodies are falling for the government spin, the lure of extra cash, not to mention the inflation of their egos and the supersized head teachers (?) salaries. As too are other bodies with an ideological or theological axe to grind. (See for example this article in the Times Educational Supplement about an evangelical creationist academy in Newark). Academy Pastor Gareth Morgan, the church leader and the driving force behind the free school bid, confirmed that creationism would be taught across the curriculum, should the school be given the green light.

"Creationism will be taught as the belief of the leadership of the school," Pastor Morgan said. "It will not be taught exclusively in the sciences, for example. At the same time, evolution will be taught as a theory."

The church website carries a video that states: "If creation is true, there is a purpose to life. If evolution is true, there is no purpose to life." It adds that "if creation is true, then man is a fallen creature and we need a saviour. If evolution is true then man is an evolving creature and we don't need any saviour"

You can easily see why this new regime appeals to religious organisations of all flavours. They have the funds and the wherewithall to set up such academies, and all the major faith groups are rapidly making moves in this direction. Right at the top of their agenda is the inculcation of their belief systems into young minds and if scientific facts like evolution happen to get in their way, then their fiction must take priority.

Other schools or prospective academies not driven by such motives may be tempted by the large financial carrot the government is dangling in front of their noses. At a time of severe cut-backs in public service provision, it must be very tempting for schools to take advantage of any extra cash on offer and to seek some degree of protection from further cuts to come. This is understandable, but the money for the large financial inducements offered to schools taking this route must come from somewhere, and if comes at the expense of deeper cuts to libraries, elder or youth services or even to wider education support services, then the rationale for such a change seems rather shaky to me. It is a curious morality that seeks advancement in isolation at the expense of those less fortunate.

It is not clear to me how much short term financial gain will be off-set by academised schools having to buy in services previously provided by LEA’s. I am thinking of such services as: education and welfare services; pupil support services (behavioural, psychological, clothing grants, music, outdoor education, SEN support); central staff costs (maternity, sickness, redundancy, early retirement, legal); asset management; repair and maintenance, the costs of devolved statutory and regulatory duties; museum and library services…the list goes on and on. If large numbers of schools opt for academy status, services previously provided at ‘at cost’ basis by local authorities will presumably be provided by private companies on a ‘for profit’ basis, thus very likely increasing the overall costs to the school budget.

Those not biting the finacial carrot may be tempted by the increased autonomy that academy status offers. But schools already have a high degree of autonomy, constrained, to a degree, by the demands of government, curriculum requirements, testing, Ofsted inspection and so forth. Crucially though, in my view, schools that remain in LEA’s can retain an overview of the broader needs of the communities in which they are situated rather than operate in isolation in their own interests. They may also be subject to control of the provision of school places and the schools admissions process in the interests of the community at large. This curtails what must be a very large temptation for academy schools to craft admissions policies with a view to creaming off talent, enhancing their reputation and status and attracting yet more funding and the more able pupils at the expense of other educational establishments and the interests of the wider community.

Academy school status does bring greater autonomy for schools to modify the terms and conditions of employment contracts for teaching, administration and other support staff. This further inculcates a competitive ethos into the whole system. Education is not a competition. It seems to me there is nothing to gain and much to lose from breaking away from nationally negotiated salary scales and terms and conditions of employment. Promises that teaching and other staff will not lose out in the long term are effectively meaningless as academy status affords the power to change terms and conditions at will according to localised priorities and circumstances.

Finally, there is the lure of status and the promise of raised standards and high pupil attainment. Unfortunately, the word academy is not a synonym for quality. It is not the name a school calls itself, “foundation” “academy” “technology college”, nor its strap line, nor even its results, or its place in the league tables, by which the quality of an educational institution should be measured. It is the skill, dedication and commitment of the staff; the involvement of the parents; the interest and enthusiasm of the pupils; the quality of support services and so forth. Educationalists should not narrow their focus to the success or otherwise of any particular educational establishment or any group or set of children. It is not just ‘my child’ or ‘your child’ that is important, it is every child. A ‘best and then the rest’ approach to educational policy is, in my view, both narrow minded and morally impoverished.

In any case, the available evidence does not support a conclusion that academy status is either driving up standards or improving pupil attainment levels, nor does academy status prove to be any defence against decline, failure or closure. Seems to me the whole exercise is just a part of the wider project of dismantling more of the architecture of our society and selling what can be sold off into the private sector.

So, all in all, it is disappointing that clodlet’s school is going to look at going down this route. I’m not worried that the school would begin to teach garbage to him so much as for the other reasons given above.