The DfE U-Turn
We recently published our full response to the white paper, Educational excellence everywhere (DfE 2016).
Yesterday the government it announced it will not pursue the forced academisation of ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ schools (designations determined by Ofsted, not the communities they serve).
This is an important concession, which has been made to try to prevent an unstoppable alliance of those opposed to the white paper inflicting serious damage to the whole academies project. It is important, but it is also pragmatic and expedient. It is intended to divide the fast developing alliance of white paper critics and hence the government has decided to sacrifice achieving 100% academisation quickly (but with much conflict, and a risk of defeat) for a longer game, which they hope will be smoother because of the concessions.
As our response to the white paper makes apparent – the long term goals of this project are clear (see below). Nicky Morgan’s announcement does not change these goals, it simply extends the timescale by which the Conservative Party hope to achieve them.
Only time will tell if this concession is one that simply delays the process of privatisation, or whether it marks a moment when the tanker really did start to be turned around. If it is to be the latter it will be because the developing alliance against the white paper is not distracted by this crude attempt to destabilise it – but rather its diverse elements continue to work together and make the case for a more positive alternative.
Below is the final sections of our white paper response. The points we make, we believe, remain unchanged by the DfE’s apparent volte face. We remain committed to building the alliance that looks for a better way.
Forum‘s response to the white paper – Thatcherism’s long shadow
The education white paper, and the 30 years of education reform that it encapsulates, is principally a political project, not an educational one. The white paper is but the latest manifestation of English education policy as the class politics of the country’s elite – a toxic mix of neoliberal and neoconservative ideology intended to dismantle the welfare state, open up every aspect of our social lives to the market and profit and to ensure that those with privilege have their privilege maintained. As such it represents the latest, and decisive, stage in restructuring English state education along lines first initiated in the heyday of Thatcherism (Stevenson, 2011). The Thatcherite legacy is most obvious in the following four features of policy:
Tell Sid . . . It’s all about privatisation
We reiterate the point made by our founding editor, nearly 30 years ago, that the reforms that have been pushed by Thatcherite education ministers since at least 1987 have always had the long term objective of breaking up the system of local authority control so that public schools (in the true sense of that term) in England can be parcelled up and handed to private providers. Globally, vast multinational edu-businesses are circling public systems of schooling eager to siphon huge sums of public money into private hands. This has been happening indirectly in the English school system for many years, and the process will be accelerated by the white paper. If the white paper is not halted, ‘for profit’ provision will not be far away. But even without the accounting nicety that can make this happen, we must recognise that public education is already being gift wrapped and handed to the privatisers.
There is no such thing as society . . .
The white paper further embeds the notion of education as a private consumption good, to be traded in a market. There is no space for the public good, or for education as a public, or community enterprise. Collective provision, collective decision making, indeed the collective in any meaningful sense, is to be expunged. Local government, parent governors, union representation – any such manifestations of the collective will are to be denied. The opportunity to discuss and debate, let alone decide by voting, is to be closed down. To prepare young people for a world of precarious employment and ruthless individualism students must experience schooling in the same terms – society is a race, and so too education becomes a race. Only winners count. It is about ‘me’, and not ‘us’.
There is no alternative . . .
Central to the success of this political project is the refashioning of a new hegemonic settlement in which alternative visions of what is possible are similarly closed down. Local authorities, teacher unions, democratically elected governing bodies and universities are all capable of generating alternative ideas and of offering different narratives to those considered acceptable by the state. This is why all these bodies must be attacked and marginalised. Even better, abolished and swept away. Meanwhile, new narratives are promoted – in this parallel universe policy is ‘evidence informed’, whilst schools enjoy ‘freedom’ and ‘autonomy’. All this is done whilst the state promotes particular forms of knowledge (or ‘truth’) and dismisses others. Similarly it promotes new ‘independent’ organisations, such as the College of Teaching and a new Leadership Foundation. The white paper is not about the creation of a self-improving school system, but of a self-reproducing school system in which those who accrue power and influence are only allowed to do so in so far as they are willing to reproduce the status quo. We are reminded of the observation of Fielding and Moss (2010) that ‘the dictatorship of no alternative cannot be overthrown without ideas’ (p2).
A grammar school in every town
A market driven school system in which schools can ‘innovate’ (or, more accurately, ‘differentiate’) within certain prescribed parameters is a recipe for division. The education market will act as the social sifter and sorter – not only reinforcing, but increasing, existing inequalities. The long held aspiration of many conservatives for a grammar school in every town will become a reality – even if we will not always recognise it when we see it. A narrow and nationalist curriculum, supported by endless testing, and linked to so-called ‘parent choice’ policies, will serve to reinforce conservative values and reproduce social privilege. Expect working class kids, living in working class communities, to get a working class curriculum.
For all the reasons we set out above we believe that the white paper Educational excellence everywhere is to be opposed. It is not just bad policy in terms of its impact on education, and the experiences of students, but it is deeply undemocratic – so much so we believe it to be dangerous. Andrew Gamble (1994) famously analysed Thatcherism as a complex fusion of free market and strong state. The white paper adopts the language of the free market (‘choice’ and ‘autonomy’) whilst reinforcing the authoritarian instincts of an exceptionally strong state. This is 1984. The power of education is being mobilised, as a part of the apparatus of the state, to reinforce a very particular ideological project. At the same time it necessarily seeks to crush any democratic impulse in the system.
Every element of the white paper must be opposed, and from this struggle a new and more hopeful vision of education will emerge. What this will look like will in part be shaped by the struggles that give birth to it. However, we believe it will reflect the aspirations articulated by Robin Alexander (2016) in his response to a recent Education Select Committee inquiry in which he set out many of the values and ideas that have been an enduring feature of Forum throughout its history.
In 1987 Brian Simon’s acute understanding of the past allowed him to anticipate the future better than anyone else at that time. Brian also understood, that whatever the political realities, bleak or optimistic, those who seek to promote 3-19 comprehensive education will always have to fight for it, because those with privilege will always resist it. In opposing this white paper we reaffirm our commitment to a much more optimistic vision of what education is, and can be.
Alexander, R. (2016) What is education for? FORUM, 58 (2), in press.
DfE (2016) Education excellence everywhere, DfE. Available online at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/508447/Educational_Excellence_Everywhere.pdf.
Fielding, M. and Moss, P. (2010) Radical education and the common school: A democratic alternative, London: Routledge.
Gamble, A. (1994) The free market and the strong state: the politics of Thatcherism, London: Palgrave.
Stevenson, H. (2011) Coalition Education Policy: Thatcherism’s long shadow, FORUM, 53(2), 179-194. http://dx.doi.org/10.2304/forum.2011.53.2.179