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5 July 2012

Education is a public good, not a consumer good

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

By Martin Johnson

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.

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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.

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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