It is commonplace for the coalition government’s attacks on the welfare state and working-class living standards to be described as “ideological.” This is nowhere more so than for those policies being pursued by the current Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove. Is it really the case that his policies are just ideological? Or is there something more material behind his manoeuvres? Sion Reynolds of the NASUWT in Portsmouth (personal capacity) examines the wider attacks to education.
It is commonplace for the coalition government’s attacks on the welfare state and working-class living standards to be described as “ideological.” This is nowhere more so than for those policies being pursued by the current Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove.
Suzanne Moore of the Guardian recently claimed that, “Gove, charming as he is, is one of the most profoundly ideological of the lot.” (Guardian, 30 January 2013) Putting aside the curious take on Gove as charming, is it really the case that his policies are just ideological? Or is there something more material behind his manoeuvres?
Gove’s “revolution” (actually a counter-revolution) in education is not merely an ideological idiosyncrasy of the Tories. It is also a feature of capitalism in the raw. We call it a counter-revolution in education because it represents the biggest assault on state education since it was founded in 1870. It hands local authority ownership and control of publicly funded schools to the private sector in the form of academy schools and “free” schools, which are publicly funded but privately owned and controlled.
This counter-revolution in education is also an attempt to complete Thatcher’s “unfinished business” (David Cameron’s phrase), that is, to destroy the teaching unions, because they continue to hold the highest density of union membership in the UK and because they hold on, stubbornly, to national pay bargaining.
Gove freely admits that he takes his inspiration from others. Gossip has it that he has been going around the world with a moleskin notebook, buttonholing individuals at conferences and taking down any ideas he thinks might inform his “revolution” in education. Christine Blower, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT), noted last year: “By his own admission, Michael Gove is relaxed about profit-making from schools. He takes his inspiration from Sweden, where profits are being made by reducing the number of qualified teachers, and where educational standards have fallen.”
In the USA, the education “for-profit” movement has been in existence since the Reagan era. “For-profit” organisations (also called Educational Management Organisations) are unashamedly “market-oriented”, i.e. rather than intrinsically educational. One such school, Mosaica Academy Charter in Bensalem near Philadelphia, was founded as early as 1988. In the year 2000 a reporter in Businessweek announced: “Mosaica is a harbinger of what proponents believe will be a revolutionary force in U.S. education: for-profit companies that run publicly-funded schools.” At Mosaica, “there is no teachers’ union, the school day is almost two hours longer than the public [i.e. state] school, and the academic year is 20 days longer.”
This will no doubt chime as a familiar scenario to anyone who has come across the Ark academy schools chain in England, owned and run by City hedge fund managers! “For-profit” schools are hailed as a freshly profitable opportunity. Big name investors are subscribing to this vision, lured by the prospect of getting on the ground floor of an entirely new industry.
If profit is to be made, one way to achieve this is to depress wages/salaries. In a typical English state school around 90% of a school’s spending will tend to go on staffing, the biggest share of which being teachers’ salaries. Academies and “free” schools tend to attempt to reduce this as a share of their budgets. Not all US charter schools are “for-profit”, but it is generally the case that experienced teachers are paid less in charter schools than their counterparts in US state schools.
Another method of schools reducing the salaries bill is to employ less experienced teachers, who tend to be paid less because they are lower down the incremental and/or leadership scales. Gove has gone further, having realised that unqualified teachers tend to cost even less than newly qualified ones. At their Conference, in Bournemouth this Easter, the NASUWT teachers’ union condemned his “decision to remove the requirement to employ qualified teachers in schools” in England. This was, they contended, a “calculated step to depress pay.” The Union’s General Secretary, Chris Keates added: “Education is in the grip of a free marketeer who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
However, the idea of recruiting cheap, unqualified teachers is not new. Since 1990 in the USA a venture called Teach For America (TFA) has recruited unqualified teachers straight from college. They give them a 5-week crash-course which is supposed to prepare them for the classroom. Members of the TFA “corps” are only required to serve as a teacher for two years. Only 29% of TFA alumni were still teaching in 2009. Thus, TFA is a conveyer belt, feeding schools continually with raw recruits from college, who burn out before they cost too much and before they can learn any better of the situation, only to be quickly replaced by more raw recruits. From his ivory tower in Westminster, Gove has seen the future… and it is grim.
With an ideology seemingly altruistic and progressive, in practice the TFA serves to undermine the teaching profession. The founding principles behind TFA were characteristically liberal. In 1988, the Princeton undergraduate Wendy Kopp wrote a thesis arguing for a national teacher corps, modelled on Kennedy’s Peace Corps – the archetype of voluntarism – that “would mobilize some of the most passionate, dedicated members of my generation to change the fact that where a child is born in the United States largely determines his or her chances in life.”
However, in 2009 USA Today reported that union leaders were “beginning to see school systems lay off teachers and then hire TFA college grads due to a contract they signed.” Despite liberal intentions, TFA has eventually become subservient to the likes of politicians such as Scott Walker and Chris Christie in their “neo-con” crusade against the teaching profession, matched only by Gove’s “revolution” in English schools and the charter school movement in Sweden.
Another method of raising the rate of profit is to work the teachers more intensively. Teachers face far heavier workloads in U.S. charter schools and are dissatisfied with their working conditions. Consequently, teacher turnover is generally much higher in charter schools than in public (i.e. state) schools, and we have already seen that recruiting newer teachers is much cheaper than recruiting experienced ones. No “loss” there then (that is, if you are a school bursar).
A further means of extending profits is to extend the working day. Gove has now raised this idea for all schools with holidays being reorganised as well. Indeed, the trend in “for-profit” schools, as in academies and “free” schools in England, already is to lengthen the school day and the academic year.
At Voyageur Academy in Detroit, the newly appointed principal Rod Atkins (who had no previous experience in teaching and who had previously served General Motors as a marketing manager) discovered that many “kids” were struggling with multiplication tables. Was his answer to improve the quality of teaching? No! (He wouldn’t know anything about that.) Instead, he says: “we decided to put everybody in lockdown from 3.30 to 5pm.” Simple. When parents arrived to pick up their kids, Atkins told them to come back later. They all said “fine,” Rod tells us.
His hope is presumably to use extended hours to attract parents to send their children to the school. Great for parents: free babysitting! Also sound economic sense for the school, as more “bums on seats” means more public funding, means more profit for the corporation! Pity the teachers who have to work into the evenings and weekends to mark their pupils’ work and plan/prepare for the next round of teaching.
In England, to raise profit margins further, somebody has had the novel idea that schools could start charging parents for extended services. This has been permitted since the introduction of Gove’s Education Act of 2011. An NASUWT pamphlet warned that the Act would “enable schools to be run for profit” and “permit charging for access to education…Schools will be able to charge for a range of services such as ‘optional extras’, which may include such matters previously provided free of charge to pupils (e.g. music, art, sport, IT, design and technology, vocational programmes).”
This is the real cost of the English Baccalaureate – Gove’s horrific vision of a return to a 1950s style education system – based on his imagined version of a bygone era before he even graced the planet. It is now possible for schools to offer what Gove considers to be “soft-subjects” as “optional extras” for a pecuniary fee. Again, a profitable opportunity, if you are a capitalist investor.
It was recently revealed in a leaked memo that Gove is considering outright privatisation of academies and free schools, allowing them to become profit-making for the first time, entirely “freed” from Whitehall control (The Independent, 10.2.13). Chris Keates said: “none of this comes as any surprise to the NASUWT, although it gives us no pleasure to say we told you so. Since the Secretary of State’s academisation programme began, we have maintained that the agenda was to put as many schools as possible into predatory chains of private providers.”
Christine Blower said that the NUT “has been in no doubt that outright privatisation of schools with the private sector making a profit at taxpayers’ expense has always been highest on Michael Gove’s agenda.”
On becoming Secretary of State in 2010, Michael Gove’s vision was that the U.S. model of Charter Schools could be replicated in the UK. He said they were doing a “fantastic job, free from bureaucratic control, of transforming the life chances of young people.” He stated that the reforms he was planning were “exactly analogous” to the Charter School system. What is most shocking is that Gove is trying to go further, for example, by allowing schools to charge parents for less privileged, but nevertheless popular and worthwhile, subjects in the curriculum. Gove has patently only just begun.
This counter-revolution in education reflects the demands of a capitalist system in crisis. Gove has pressed the academies programme because, from a capitalist point of view, it makes sound economic sense. Would Labour continue these educational policies in power? Probably… unless the Labour Movement had something to say about it! Let us not forget that it was Labour’s ex-leftist, David Blunkett, who founded the academy schools programme in 2000, although the seeds of this idea were taken from Thatcher’s Secretary of State, Kenneth Baker’s City Technology Colleges scheme from 1986.
If Labour does win the next general election, then working class people and those interested in a truly free and democratic education system are going to be asking some very awkward questions.