In line with the New Labour outlook that there is nothing in heaven and earth that cannot be improved by private companies and religion, the real, but still largely disguised, agenda of this government is the break-up and eventual privatisation of large parts of the education system.
Last week the government went out of its way to strengthen its commitment to expand the academy school programme. New Labour ignored the wishes of many parents and teaching unions who have campaigned against academies in favour of an improved comprehensive system.
The number of academies planned has now gone up to 400, about 10% of all secondary schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The cost of the programme is an astronomic £5bn, made higher by the proposal to scrap the “entry fee” sponsors have had to pay.
The idea behind academy schools came from the Tories. The original plan – they were called City Technology Colleges then – was widely seen as step towards privatisation and an attack on comprehensive schools, which are non-selective mixed-ability neighbourhood schools.
Academy schools, which select up to 10% of their pupils, are taken out of the control of the local authority and put into the hands of a sponsor which might be a business, a Christian evangelical outfit, a university, a private school or even a football club such as Aston Villa. The school is funded by the state, but it is the sponsors who then control it – the staff, their salaries, the ethos of the school and even, within limits, the curriculum – by means of an in-built majority on the governing board.
Promoted as a way to improve standards, no hard evidence has emerged that these schools bring about any improvements. Last week, an academy in Sheffield was put into special measures by the Ofsted inspectors. Sheffield Park Academy was set up in 2007 with new buildings that cost £30m. The school was found to be “inadequate” in all areas and the inspectors’ report was critical of its management and leadership.
This particular academy is sponsored by the United Learning Trust, the largest sponsor of these schools, and part of an Anglican-based company that runs private schools. The trust had an income of £155m in 2007-8. The charity is chaired by Dame Angela Rumbold, the former Tory education minister, and has Lord Carey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, on its board.
The inspectors’ report is doubly embarrassing for New Labour as the school that existed before Sheffield Park, until 2006, was not failing and had itself been moved into new buildings in 1998, at a cost of £8m.
In addition to the academy programme, some state schools now have science and IT departments that are owned, controlled and serviced by private companies. Capital projects such as new premises are often financed in a way that means the buildings are leased back to the school, an insane and expensive folly.
And what do parents make of all this, carried out, supposedly, in their name and for the benefit of their children? In many parts of Britain now, there are is a scramble for places at the best secondary schools. Middle-class parents will even move house in order to get into the catchment area of the best school.
In Wandsworth, South London, for example, there is an academy, two selective state schools, a selective Roman Catholic school, a selective C of E school and five other non-selective comprehensives that inevitably tend to become the “sink” schools for the area. One of them is already in special measures.
The element of fairness and equality that became a feature of the secondary education scene in the 1960s is vanishing fast. We face a return to the bad old days of grammar and secondary modern schools, but under different names. Most parents will despair.
One wonders if a Tory government could have got away with a result like this?