The National Union of Teachers believes in an education system that provides the best for all our children and for all our communities - a good local school for every child. Joined up thinking and democratic accountability are crucial but, as we approach the new school year, this vision is under renewed threat.
Speaking on 15 August, the Prime Minister announced his intention to push further and faster with education reforms. He said that creating more academies, opening free schools and turning round the 200 weakest secondaries and the 200 weakest primaries would be a priority over the coming months. Such public vilification of schools is likely to have a negative effect on the aspirations of those communities.
Accelerating ill-thought out education reforms is not an appropriate response to the problems our country faces. The Government appears determined to break up the comprehensive state education system and replace it with a free market for schools. Their approach is purely ideological. There is no evidence that this approach will improve education. Indeed Sweden has experienced a 20-year decline in standards of educational attainment that coincides exactly with the introduction of free schools.
A lack of strategy
The rapid expansion of the academies programme and the establishment of free schools puts in jeopardy a strategically-planned, joined up, democratically accountable national education service. Academies undermine the strategic role of the local authority. For instance, those authorities with free schools in their area will lose control of the planning of pupil places. The Prime Minister has said previously that there is a 'state monopoly' of our schools. In fact, were he to look closely enough what he would find is real community involvement in education and an education service aiming to meet the needs of all pupils.
Only this week the public overwhelmingly rejected the Government's proposals to allow free schools to open in shops and houses without planning permission. It is only right that local communities should be able to have their say on proposed new schools. A free for all, without proper planning and a role for local authorities, is a recipe for chaos.
For there to be increasing numbers of schools that are state funded but with no locus in their communities is a nonsense. Increasingly, in a state-funded system with no local democratic accountability, the only recourse a parent will have if they encounter problems is to write to the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove. What is claimed as 'choice' will actually be unsustainable and undemocratic central control, without any of the strategic planning required to provide good education for all our children.
Worse, academies can create or reinforce local hierarchies of schools. In December 2008 the Institute of Education reported that academies that expel large numbers of disruptive pupils are having a potentially bad impact on neighbouring schools. How can it be, for instance, that in 2006/7 academies were responsible for 2% of all temporary exclusions and 3% of permanent exclusions, despite making up only 0.3% of state schools in England?
Meeting the needs of all our children
The NUT's starting point is that no school should be an island. The focus should be on having a system in place that best meets the needs of all children. It is a key role of local authorities to provide a framework for schools to work together to achieve and sustain improvement.
Christine Blower is General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers.
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