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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Jeremy Corbyn challenged by Labour MPs to sack Ken Livingstone from defence review

Former mayor of London criticised at PLP meeting over comments on 7 July bombings. 

After Jeremy Corbyn's decision to give Labour MPs a free vote over air strikes in Syria, tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting was less fractious than it could have been. But one grandee was still moved to declare that the "ferocity" of the attacks on the leader made it the most "uplifting" he had attended.

Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, told the meeting: "We cannot unite the party if the leader's office is determined to divide us." Several MPs said afterwards that many of those who shared Corbyn's opposition to air strikes believed he had mishandled the process by appealing to MPs over the heads of the shadow cabinet and then to members. David Winnick declared that those who favoured military action faced a "shakedown" and deselection by Momentum activists. "It is completely unacceptable. They are a party within a party," he said of the Corbyn-aligned group. The "huge applause" for Hilary Benn, who favours intervention, far outweighed that for the leader, I'm told. 

There was also loud agreement when Jack Dromey condemned Ken Livingstone for blaming Tony Blair's invasion of Iraq for the 7 July 2005 bombings. Along with Angela Smith MP, Dromey demanded that Livingstone be sacked as the co-chair of Labour's defence review. Significantly, Benn said aftewards that he agreed with every word Dromey had said. Corbyn's office has previously said that it is up to the NEC, not the leader, whether the former London mayor holds the position. In reference to 7 July, an aide repeated Corbyn's statement that he preferred to "remember the brilliant words Ken used after 7/7". 

As on previous occasions, MPs complained that the leader failed to answer the questions that were put to him. A shadow minister told me that he "dodged" one on whether he believed the UK should end air strikes against Isis in Iraq. In reference to Syria, a Corbyn aide said afterwards that "There was significant support for the leader. There was a wide debate, with people speaking on both sides of the arguments." After David Cameron's decision to call a vote on air strikes for Wednesday, leaving only a day for debate, the number of Labour MPs backing intervention is likely to fall. One shadow minister told me that as few as 40-50 may back the government, though most expect the total to be closer to the original figure of 99. 

At the end of another remarkable day in Labour's history, a Corbyn aide concluded: "It was always going to be a bumpy ride when you have a leader who was elected by a large number outside parliament but whose support in the PLP is quite limited. There are a small number who find it hard to come to terms with that result."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.