Education is a public good, not a consumer good

Accepting market solutions for school improvement is the wrong way to go.

The London-centric education policy community has been in a high state of excitement during 2012 about the so-called middle tier: what kind of organisations should sit between England’s 21,000 state-funded schools and the hanging gardens of the DfE? While ministers wait to see what the market provides and while think-tanks think, Labour has a policy consultation which closes on 10 July and the RSA and Pearson have sponsored an academies commission.

There appears to be a lot of consensus around. Everyone says yes, we need a middle tier, and nearly everyone says yes, it should provide the same roles – school improvement, accountability, ensuring school places and fair access to them.

ATL, however, says everyone is missing the point. In our contribution to Labour's policy consultation, published this week, we say the middle tier debate is characterised by simple but profound misapprehensions.

Firstly, it is taken for granted that most of England’s schools are about to be academies. Newspapers routinely declare that half are already. This is wrong. DfE figures for June show that just 10.49% of England’s maintained schools, are, or have applied to become, academies.

Now we know that Michael Gove wishes the spin to become reality, and more importantly so do the money-people set to benefit from selling off schools, but in reality, the only way the remaining 89.51% will become academies is for the government to step up its ‘forced to be free’ approach.

The financial advantage of conversion disappears next year when the new schools funding system kicks in – research shows this has been the number one motive to convert.  And the academy ideal is highly unattractive to the large majority of primary schools; most are just too small to be viable independent organisations. So nine out of 10 schools still look to their local authorities or diocesan boards for support.

Secondly, although the money-people chase around the country trying to hoover schools into their chains, the large majority of academies remain free-standing. The idea that these free-standing schools are controlled by Michael Gove is risible. There are too many and they are too far from London. No, the problem is they are out of control, with no genuine accountability. I refer you to the Lincoln polo grounds and porn on the school credit card.

Thirdly, and crucially, education is not a consumer good and pupils can’t thrive when it is treated as such. If your cornflakes taste like cardboard you can try another brand next time, but you can’t try a different school each term and expect to get results.

Accepting market solutions as the main driver for school improvement – as in, you fail, you close – means we accept writing off cohorts of pupils as a school goes down hill.

So, finally, to the most substantial gap in the middle tier debate. Education is a public good, not a consumer good. It is a major public service to local communities, and must be run for local communities which means: sufficient place planning to give local pupils access to a local school; a fair and transparent admissions process which reflects the make-up of the local community; an ethos and a curriculum which are supported by the local community; and allowing teachers ownership of what is taught, how it is taught and how is it assessed in order to get the best from children.

We don’t have to wait for the market to come up with a solution. We already have bodies to do this. They currently have over 200 statutory functions. They have, or until recently had, the capacity to undertake all the roles of a middle tier, including place planning and fair access which only a public body can take responsibility for. We don’t need democratic local authorities to provide all services to schools, but they must be responsible to the community for the quality of those services and the spending of public money.

To ATL, this is completely obvious. The idea of replacing them is either ideological clap-trap or a necessary stepping stone to running our schools for profit. And we now know for sure two things: selling off our schools is Michael Gove’s intention and this is profoundly unpopular with the majority of schools, parents and communities.

Martin Johnson is the deputy general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers

 

Year 10 pupils at Burlington Danes Academy in West London. Photograph: Getty Images
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder