Britain’s public education under attack

July 7, 2010

James Illingworth reports on a battle in Britain to defend the public education system.

FOLLOWING IN the footsteps of governments around the world, the British government, under the control of a ruling coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, is using the ongoing economic crisis to push through the privatization of public education.

Although the recent budget excluded education from the list of government departments facing massive cuts, Education Minister Michael Gove, a member of the Conservatives, or Tories, is instead planning to funnel millions of dollars in taxpayers' money into the hands of privately run schools.

The new Con-Dem government has made the Academies Bill one of the first pieces of legislation it will introduce to parliament. The new law, if passed, would invite British public schools to effectively secede from local government control and become self-governing charities under the management of private individuals, religious foundations and groups of parents.

In addition to government funding, the new academies would be free to raise money from private sources. They would also gain a broad mandate to set their own curriculum. Most significantly, academies would have the freedom to introduce an element of selection into their admissions process, with up to 10 percent of students chosen based on "aptitude."

Education Minister Michael Gove
Education Minister Michael Gove (Paul Toeman)

The overwhelming majority of schools expressing an interest in entering the academy system are high-performing schools in middle-class neighborhoods. In mid-June, the BBC reported that 70 percent of public schools with an "outstanding" rating from the school inspector Ofsted expressed an interest in becoming academies.

The academy system would deepen and extend the stratification of educational opportunities in Britain. Academies would become eligible for additional government funding of up to 10 percent above and beyond the funds available to public schools. Even worse, these monies would come directly from funds that were previously used by local governments to share among all schools under their jurisdiction.

The implications are clear: high-performing schools from affluent areas will get the ability to choose the best pupils and will be rewarded with greater autonomy and more funding. Schools that remain under local government control will be starved of funds. Furthermore, while the concept of greater parent involvement in schools may seem enticing, only better-off parents will have the time and resources to run their own school. The path is clear for the emergence of a two-tier education system in Britain.

WHILE THE Con-Dem government justifies the academy system with rhetoric about "choice" and "autonomy," school reform would actually concentrate decision-making power in the hands of an unaccountable and unelected bureaucracy.

For one thing, the education minister would gain sole power to decide which schools become academies and which remain under local government control. And democratically elected local councils would lose out to private foundations and their highly paid managers.

Ed Balls, the former Education Minister and now a contender in the opposition Labour Party's leadership election, has spoken out against the Academies Bill. The new law will "mean the resource and the power will be handed over, away from the local authority to the best-performing schools, which will suck the best teachers and the extra money," he said.

But Balls is hardly in any position to attack the Tories. The latest assault on public education is simply an extension of a policy begun when Balls' own New Labour government was in power. The first academies were created in 2000 when Tony Blair was prime minister, and there were already more than 200 such schools in Britain when the Con-Dem coalition was elected.

The unions represent a more realistic source of resistance to academies. Organized labor has every reason to fear their creation.

Sweden's "free school" system, a major source of inspiration for the Academies Bill, has led to whole sectors of education falling into the hands of private corporations. As they strive to cut costs and maintain profitability, these privately owned schools have come to employ a much higher proportion of underqualified and lower-paid teachers than their state-run equivalents.

Britain's largest teachers' union, NASUWT, has spoken out against the proposed reforms, with General Secretary Chris Keates stating, "Academies and free schools are a recipe for educational inequality and social segregation." Several unions have joined an Anti-Academies Alliance to fight the spread of privately run schools.

Teachers and other education workers can expect to find significant support for their struggle among parents and the broader public. A recent poll showed that an overwhelming 96 percent of British parents oppose the transfer of schools from government control to private corporations. In April of last year, parents, students and teachers took part in a number of building occupations designed to prevent the closure of schools in London and Glasgow.

The fight against the privatization of education will need to be integrated into the broader fight against austerity. The two processes are inextricably linked. Governments across Europe and North America are both forcing working people and their unions to pay for the economic crisis and also using the moment to open the public sector to business interests. Teachers and parents must unite with other groups of public-sector workers in order to fight back.

The struggle over academies in Britain has international implications, too. The Swedish "free school" system inspired British politicians to dabble in privatization--if they succeed in pushing the same agenda, it would probably lead other governments to follow suit.

Activists resisting charter schools and closures in the U.S. should be following this struggle closely.

Further Reading

From the archives