By inviting all head teachers in the country to re-invent their schools as independent “academies”, Michael Gove, the new Tory education secretary, is really tempting them to abandon the principles and traditions of comprehensive state education.
Taking all schools away from elected local education authorities will further disadvantage students with learning difficulties as well as those who are challenged by their background and social environment.
Furthermore, the second plank of the proposals, the so-called “free schools” that will be set up and run by parents and other groups, will almost certainly fall into the hands of private companies before long. Private profit-making companies are waiting, jaws agape, for just such an opportunity.
Of course, it was the previous New Labour government that opened the doors wide for Tory plans. Driven, as always, by the wishes of big business and the employers’ organisations, the Blair/Brown governments enforced an unpopular and restrictive national curriculum onto the schools. It went along with a regime of constant testing, league tables according to exam results and the gradual privatisation of services.
And it was New Labour who foisted 200 academies onto the education landscape, against the wishes of most teachers and their unions, as a kind of Trojan Horse, in order, principally, to de-stabilise non-selective, neighbourhood comprehensive schools.
The new Tory proposals develop naturally out of this introduction of the market into the education system and they also profit from the general disillusion and frustration of teachers and parents with the New Labour model. They will seem attractive to many at first sight. Head teachers of those schools that have been labelled as “outstanding” have been promised a fast-tracked process so they can become academy schools by September.
There is no evidence that semi-independent, state-funded academies raise standards compared with other schools. There is plenty of evidence to show that they are divisive and expensive. Private business, disguised as charities, has a key role in the running of academies. Some now teach creationism as a scientific fact in opposition to the theory of evolution.
At present academies are allowed to select up to 10% of their new pupils. With this power, which may well be extended, they are able to cream off the brightest pupils, altering the balance of all the schools in the area.
They will soon establish themselves as the school of choice at the expense of others in the area. The former two-tier system of grammar schools and secondary modern schools looms again, though the new names given to them will no doubt try to cover up the fact.
These new schools will not only have extra freedoms over admissions and the curriculum, but they will have control over salaries, introducing competition for the best teachers. This measure is a direct challenge to the unions, which presently negotiate pay agreements on a national level.
The two main unions have condemned the proposals. Chris Keates, of NAS/UWT, accused the government of breaking up state education. “It is essential that those who care about social justice, fairness and equality, who value public services and care about the future of state education, do not allow this to happen,” she said
Christine Blower of the NUT commented: "Creating academies on the scale proposed by the government will have the effect of transferring billions of pounds of publicly funded assets in the form of buildings and land into the hands of private sponsors … This is a retrograde step which will cause social division and planning gridlock...What is needed is a good local school for every child working within their local family of schools."
The question is: What will they do about it? If the union leaders are serious, they will order immediate ballots of their members with a view to challenging the coalition government’s plans with industrial action. Unions should build a united campaign with parents, communities and other public sector workers in the firing line. It's now or never for the teaching unions' leaders.