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New Labour puts profits before education

AS A new academic year begins, all the problems in education that existed under the Tories have only got worse under New Labour while Blair has added a few new problems of his own making. BOB SULATYCKI, secretary of Kensington and Chelsea National Union of Teachers, writes in a personal capacity:

 

 

IT IS a measure of how bad things are when Mike Tomlinson, new head of the school inspectorate OFSTED, contradicts official government spin to expose the depth of the burgeoning teacher shortage crisis in England and Wales. Conveniently, he forgets OFSTED's own role in causing this flight from teaching.

An astonishing 40% now quit teaching within their first three years. As the Socialist Party predicted, performance-related pay has led many thousands of teachers to decide 'enough is enough' and leave the profession - the opposite to what former Education Secretary Blunkett said would happen.

Meanwhile, in areas such as London, pupil-teacher ratios, and therefore class size, are at their worst for 30 years.

Inadequate levels of pay and deteriorating conditions of service lie behind the shortage crisis, but there are other factors too. Job satisfaction levels are at an all-time low. There is widespread frustration with the new culture of tests and more tests, of inspections and ever more remote and target-obsessed management regimes.

Frustration often turns to despair. In the last year over 12,000 teachers phoned Teacherline (a counselling service) of which 27% indicated high levels of stress, anxiety or depression.

The new competitive culture of league tables, 'beacon schools', 'failing schools' - dubbed free-market Stalinism by one commentator - creates a climate of setting school against school. Studies in London by researchers from King's College show far more polarisation between schools for middle-class and working-class parents. That is the completely predictable result of introducing a market philosophy.

In Bradford the Commission for Racial Equality reported how so-called parental choice had helped create segregated schools, leading to growing intolerance and racial division.

Meanwhile the government now plans to increase the number of religious schools, and to encourage such schools to have preferential funding and more power to select their intake on the basis of 'aptitude'. Working-class pupils and those from religious minorities will increasingly enjoy only a second-class education.

Testing times

THE OBSESSION with tests and tables places increased pressure on pupils. This summer the Times Educational Supplement showed that most pupils sit at least 30 formal tests or teacher assessments before they reach secondary school; some take as many as 43. The country with the next highest total in Europe has eleven!

Many agencies, including ChildLine and the Samaritans believe that tests and exams increase anxiety and thoughts of suicide. Even the Institute for Public Policy Research, which normally supports the government, argues that there is a testing mania leading to growing mental health problems amongst the young.

At least one in ten school-age children now suffers from some kind of psychiatric illness. The irony is that standard assessment tests (SATs) by themselves have no value for an individual child; no employer or college is ever likely to want to see evidence of a student's SATs results!

But tests and league tables serve the double advantage for the government of appearing to be doing something about 'standards' while at the same time exercising complete central control over the curriculum. And it's also quite cheap!

In fact, for all Labour's much trumpeted increases in education spending, resourcing remains a fundamental issue. Of the 19 billion "increases" - much of it double-counted, very little reaches the classrooms.

According to an OECD report this June, government spending on education under Labour remains well below the average for developed countries. The pupil-teacher ratio lags behind all other OECD countries except for the Czech republic, Mexico, Korea and Turkey.

Britain is also cited as a country with an acute divide between educational haves and have-nots. All these problems are likely to worsen in the coming months; many secondary schools, for instance, are likely to face big budget shortfalls over the next year.

Labour's forlorn hope is that business and private money comes to the rescue of state education. But business will only get involved if there's profit to be made. Where they do, it will not be to the benefit of the education service.

Ed Mayo of the New Economics Foundation recently gave a small, but telling example of the motives of business in education:

"News International and Walkers joined forces to offer coupons on crisp packets and in newspapers for parents, children and relatives to collect and cash in for schoolbooks. This resulted in 2.5 million free books going to schools - about the same number that are funded by the government annually.

"In reality, the campaign was also a carefully constructed money-spinner. The only eligible book provider was Harper-Collins, part of the Murdoch empire, and a company angling for contracts in the education sector.

"As a News International insider commented when the campaign picked up a Business in the Community Award: 'There is no doubt that Harper-Collins has benefited commercially from this initiative, and probably considerably so.'"

Fight privatisation

LABOUR IS more obsessed with involving the private sector in education than any previous government. Education Action Zones (EAZs) were an early attempt to bring the private sector into the management and administration of schools.

"EAZ policy is not about business making a profit," said David Blunkett, then Education Secretary, in 1999. But Labour now talks openly of businesses running schools for profits. Governing bodies of schools will be allowed to pass management of the school to a private company or, even more bizarrely, individual departments within secondary schools may be hived off to the private sector.

Companies are demanding - and are likely to win - the right to hire and fire staff. This employment right is now held by the local education authority and the school governing body.

Meanwhile, there has been wholesale privatisation of local education authorities such as Hackney, Islington and Bradford. A private company, Capita, which had taken over the education services of Leeds and Haringey, increased its operating profit by 62% to 31.3 million in the six months up to June.

Capita's shareholders will enjoy an increase in dividends of 36%. Meanwhile, in a direct threat to local authority workers, it plans this term to launch Capita Education Direct in order to "market, sell and deliver the full range of our services directly to schools."

Alongside Capita, Nord Anglia and WS Atkins, there has been a proliferation of private teacher agencies, supplying teachers from around the world to fill gaps created by teacher vacancies, but making their profits by paying the teachers on their books below the nationally set rates.

Once these companies establish a foot in the door, they are much harder to push out - many have by now got into the living room and are pilfering the family silver.

The threat of privatisation, alongside the Private Finance Initiative programme, is forcing the NUT leadership into more forthright verbal opposition, alongside the public service unions UNISON and the GMB.

But we cannot rely on the words of union leaders alone. We need grass roots campaigns of teachers, education workers and parents and other users, as has happened in Waltham Forest, east London over privatisation of the education services.

These local campaigns need to be linked together in a national offensive against privatisation.