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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Hyper-partisan Corbynite websites show how the left can beat the tabloids online

If I were a young Tory looking forward to a long career, I’d be worried.

Despite their best efforts during the election campaign, the Sun, Daily Mail, Telegraph and Express failed to convince voters to give Theresa May a majority, let alone the landslide she craved. Instead, Labour made inroads thanks partly to increased turnout among younger voters who prefer to get their news online and from social networks.

The centre of power in the media has been shifting to the web for years, but during the election we saw just how well a crop of hyper-partisan left-wing news sites are using social media to gain the kind of influence once restricted to the tabloid press.

Writers for sites such as the Canary or Evolve Politics see themselves as activists as much as journalists. That frees them to spin news stories in a way that is highly attuned to the dynamics of social media, provoking strong emotions and allowing them to address their audience like a friend down the pub “telling it how it really is”.

People on Facebook or Twitter use news to tell their friends and the wider world who they are and what they believe in. Sharing the Canary story “Theresa May is trying to override parliamentary democracy to cling to power. But no one’s fooled” is a far more effective signal that you don’t like the Tory government than posting a dry headline about the cancellation of the 2018 Queen’s Speech.

This has long-term implications for the right’s ability to get its message out. Research by BuzzFeed has found that pro-Conservative stories were barely shared during the election campaign. It appears the “shy Tory” factor that skewed opinion polling in previous elections lives on, influencing what people are prepared to post online. If I were a young Tory looking forward to a long career, I’d be worried.

Distorted reality

Television was once the press’s greatest enemy. But its “newspaper reviews” now offer print titles a safe space in which they are treated with a level of respect out of all proportion to their shrinking readership. Surely this must change soon? After all, the Independent sometimes gets a slot (despite having ceased print publication last year) for its digital front page. How is it fair to exclude BuzzFeed News – an organisation that invests in reporting and investigations – and include the Daily Express, with its less-than-prescient weather predictions?

Another problem became apparent during the election. Because the press is so dominated by the right, coverage from the supposedly impartial broadcasters was skewed, as presenters and guests parroted headlines and front-page stories from partisan newspapers. Already, some political programmes, such as BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show, have experimented with including news from outside Fleet Street. One of the newspaper industry’s most reliable allies is looking for new friends.

Alternative facts

The rise of sites spreading the left-wing gospel across Facebook may be good for Labour but that doesn’t mean it’s good for the public. This was illustrated on 16 June in a post by a relatively new entrant called the Skwawkbox, which claimed that a government “D-notice” – now called a DSMA-notice – might be in place restricting news organisations from reporting on the number of casualties from the Grenfell Tower fire.

The claim was untrue and eventually an update was added to the post, but not before it was widely shared. The man behind the blog (who gives his name in interviews only as “Steve”) insisted that because he had included a couple of caveats, including the word “if” in the text of his article, he was justified in spreading an unsubstantiated rumour. Replacing an irresponsible right-wing tabloid culture in print with equally negligent left-wing news sites online doesn’t feel much like progress.

Blood and bias

Narratives about the corrupt, lying mainstream media (the “MSM” for short) have become more prevalent during the election, and it’s clear they often hit a nerve.

On 17 June, a protest over Theresa May’s deal with the DUP and the Grenfell Tower fire made its way past BBC Broadcasting House, where a small group stopped to chant: “Blood, blood, blood on your hands!” Hours later, in the shadow of the burned-out tower, I heard a young woman complain loudly to her friends about money being used to fly BBC news helicopters when it could have gone to displaced victims.

The BBC cites the accusations of bias it receives from both ends of the political spectrum as evidence that it is resolutely centrist. But while many of its greatest critics would miss the BBC if it goes, the corporation could do a better job of convincing people why it’s worth keeping around.

Grenfell grievances

Early reports of the attack on a Muslim crowd in Finsbury Park on 19 June exhibited a predictably depressing double standard. The perpetrator was a “lone wolf”, and the Mail identified him as “clean-shaven”: phrases it is hard to imagine being used about an Islamist. Yet the media don’t just demonise Muslims in its reporting; they also marginalise them. Coverage of Grenfell contained plenty of references to the churches in this part of west London and its historic black community. Yet Muslims and the relief work carried out by local mosques received comparatively little coverage. Community issues such as Islam’s requirement that the dead are buried swiftly were largely ignored, even though a large number of those killed or made homeless by the fire were Muslim.

I suspect this may have something to do with outdated ideas of what north Kensington is like. But it also must reflect the reality that just 0.4 per cent of UK journalists are Muslim, according to a study by City University in London. The lack of diversity in the media isn’t just a moral issue; it’s one that affects our ability to tell the full story.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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