By Alasdair Smith
For the first time ever, there is a Labour Party leader who is fully committed to comprehensive, democratic and progressive education. Whilst it opens up an exciting range of new opportunities, these come at a time when the key issues in education are set to be dominated by austerity, not just privatisation. Our children face years of austerity with deep cuts in education and other aspects of the welfare state.
There can be no doubt that what got Jeremy Corbyn elected was the anti-austerity social movement. The shabby political elite and their media hacks in the Westminster bubble could not see it coming and can still barely understand it. But we need to recognise that something fundamental has changed. There is a new movement of people – of hundreds of thousands of people – who have broken from the Westminster consensus.
For the moment at least, this movement has some momentum and can have a huge impact. Therefore, it is essential that our work is focused on how to support and educate this new movement. Many ‘Corbynistas’ will be clear in their anti-austerity politics, their anti-war commitment and probably on the NHS and rest of welfare state. But we can’t take for granted that they will have a clearly thought out perspective on education.
The Blair years have permanently scarred the education landscape, muddying the waters on not only the aims of education but on the best ways of educating our children. At their behest, they created the Trojan horse that opened the way for extensive privatisation and deregulation. Blair and Adonis carry a heavy responsibility for this, and for undermining the Labour Party’s credibility with educational professionals and parents. Resolving this mess will require some hard thinking. Lucy Powell’s announcement signalling a change of direction is therefore very welcome news. It is a step in the right direction.
But there at least four more years of Tory attacks to come. There can be no question of waiting around to let the Tories dismantle even more of the state system. Although over 60% of secondary schools are now academies, less than 20% of primaries are. Nicky Morgan has made clear her intention that every school is an academy by the end of the parliament. The new Education & Adoption Bill will ‘remove barriers’ to conversion (actually there were no barriers except campaigners!)
Meanwhile record numbers of academies are failing, the cost of conversion is robbing other schools of precious resources and two huge crises are on the horizon. The shortage of school places – more than 11,000 new primary schools are needed by 2024 – and the looming shortage of teachers will have a massive impact on the next four years. When, coupled with real cuts in school budgets, it is likely that the key fight in education will be an austerity and funding.
That’s why Jeremy Corbyn’s call for a National Education Service makes sense. As Eddie Playfair argues it is something that we need to consider very seriously. The AAA has argued for at least two years that we need a ‘National Campaign for Education’ that takes up all the issues and provides a positive alternative to GERM (the Global Education Reform Movement).
But whatever we call the movement for a better education is called we need to position ourselves to help the process of building a ‘new cadre for comprehensive education’.
It would help if we had a shadow cabinet that would lead the fight against neo-liberal education, but for the moment it is not clear how far they will go. What is clear is that there are hundreds of thousands of new, often young, people who will be looking for better ideas on education.
The GERM lives on
But in all the excitement we should not forget that the neo-liberal GERM ideology has sunk deep roots. There are a few rotten individuals who have profited – like the odious Sir Greg Martin who used his school Durand Primary Academy in Lambeth, London.
But the real threats are the edubusiness empires. Ark, the Harris federation and the likes of Reach 2 now have immense political power over education policy through intimate links to Tory ministers and other corporate connections. The global behemoth – Pearson -won’t want to see their market share curtailed by the return of public sector values!
Many individual head teachers of academies have become small businessmen, seeking to build their own empires. There are probably 5000 head teachers like this and they will argue that they have done better as academies, that autonomy has made things better.
These people and organisations have, in most cases, neutered their governing bodies and eliminated any vestiges of democratic accountability. They will form a serious barrier to change.
What’s the future for AAA campaigns?
Lucy Powell announcement shows the issue of academies & free schools is central, but we cannot expect anti-academy campaigns to be prominent in the coming years. Other matters are likely to push academy conversion down the agenda. That does not mean we don’t keep fighting, but we do need to recognise the conditions need to be right if we are to fight.
A few hard fought victories have been achieved when we have been able to mobilise across all stakeholders – Hove Park being the most recent example in which teachers, support staff, parents, students, the local MP and at least some sections of the Local Authority had a shared aim and willingness to fight. All AAA campaign need to ask what other forces will work with us. We need to get 3 or 4 of these groups committed to fighting, otherwise there is little point embarking on a campaign. Indeed, it is likely that in the coming months, if not this year, then certainly next year, the focus of resistance will shift to fighting cuts.
Building a new movement in education. Building a National Education Service?
In these new times, we need to
- Concentrate & centralise of our efforts on building a new alliance.
- Continue to support parents & teachers who want to fight – changing our website and other resources will reflect those changes
- Work with the Corbyn movement to help create a national campaign for education. Or a National Education Service
- Our goal is to make the ideas of comprehensive, progressive and democratic education the key ideas of an NES and to make that hegemonic across education and wider society.