In today’s (16 March) budget George Osborne has promised that all schools in England will become independent of local authority control by 2022.
This is an extension of the academy system, which has already been introduced in 2,075 out of 3,381 secondary schools and 2,440 of 16,766 primary schools in England. Academies have been attacked for being a step towards the privatisation of schools. And they have been further slammed for destroying democratic accountability for school administration and placing all the control in the hands of shadowy trusts (the name given to companies that run academies).
Lucy Powell, the shadow schools minister, has pointed out that “there is no evidence to suggest that academisation, in and of itself, leads to school improvement”. And in fact the chief inspector of schools, Michael Wilshaw, has said that “many of the [academy] trusts manifested the same weaknesses as the worst-performing local authorities and offered the same excuses.” Kevin Courtney, the deputy general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, whose members in sixth-form colleges went on strike yesterday (15 March) over cuts to college funding, also condemned this proposal. And Roy Perry, the chairman of the local government association’s children and young people’s board pointed out that only 15% of the largest academy chains perform above the national average for pupil progress, whereas the figure is 44% for local authority schools.
The logic of capitalism
Despite this widespread opposition the Tories are pressing ahead with their plans because, from a capitalist point of view, this move makes sense. Creeping privatisation is already the norm in existing academy trusts, where support staff (i.e. all the workers at a school who are not teachers) have been sacked in favour of cheaper workers contracted from an agency to do the same job. Businesses are incentiveised to squeeze education workers as hard as possible because, unlike in local authority schools, at academies management pay is uncapped, with one trust’s chief executive earning £225,000 last year. If more money is saved in staff costs, then there is more money available with which the executives can line their pockets.
This situation extends beyond education. Junior doctors are currently under attack by the Tories as well, in a move widely seen to be an attempt to starve the NHS of funds so that it is forced to rely on the private sector to survive. After school support staff and doctors, it is only a matter of time before teachers too are forced into the casual labour market, with the poorer pay and conditions that come with agency work.
All of this makes sense because the government is desperately trying to save money, whilst at the same time trying to boost profits for their friends in big business. This is the capitalists’ only possible strategy for overcoming the crisis of overproduction that is throttling the economy. The plan to turn all schools into academies is just one piece of a bigger picture that includes the privatisation of the NHS and the post office, the selling off of other government assets, lowering corporation tax and turning a blind eye to tax-avoidance, to name just a few.
The future of education under capitalism
The deteriorating treatment of teachers and support staff will impact students’ education. Teachers are being asked to do more with less. Even within local authority schools this has been taking place in recent years and the result is that the number of teachers taking stress leave has increased by over 10% since 2008 and 15 local authorities have reported a 50% rise in stress-related absence. The conditions of work for teachers at existing academies are already brutal and the attacks on the pay and conditions of teachers that will go hand in hand with wholesale academisation are only going to make this problem worse. Overworked, underpaid and stressed teachers can’t be expected to teach well.
On top of this, the seven largest multi-academy trusts are currently sitting on a combined total of £111 million of cash in the bank. This is money that could be being invested into the academies for which these companies are responsible, but instead this money is used to pay the eye-watering salaries of chief executives while some academies fail to perform better, and in some cases perform worse, than local authority schools. Meanwhile the executives of these trusts are safe in the knowledge that, unlike the local authority, they cannot be held to account through democratic channels and so can continue to pocket public money and put students’ education at risk.
The Tories are the political mouthpiece of big business and the strategists of capital. This academisation plan is, along with other things, the only plan the bourgeois strategists have for solving the capitalist crisis. Under capitalism, there is no alternative other than the dismantling of education as we know it. For Marxists there is another solution – the dismantling of capitalism itself.
How to fight back
During his campaign for election as leader of the Labour party, Corbyn put forward the idea of a National Education Service (NES). To fight the Tories we should campaign for an NES that provides free education for everyone from cradle to grave. We should be funding education through the expropriation of the big academy chains and allowing parents, teachers, staff and students to run schools democratically. This should be part of a socialised plan of production, in which all the main levers of the economy – the big monopolies, the banks etc. – are expropriated, brought under democratic workers’ control and their resources used to meet people’s needs rather than boost the profits of the super-rich.
This socialist programme should form the basis of a campaign to fight the Tories on the question of academies. It is not enough for us to say what we are against, we must say what we are for. We have to inspire people with a vision of what society could be like if we were to ditch the decrepit capitalist system.
The first practical step in this fight has to be for the teaching unions to ballot their members for strike action because if this legislation goes through then pay, conditions and jobs are all at risk. The teaching unions should also ensure that support staff at schools are included in walkouts as they will be affected just as badly.
The parallels between the teachers’ situation and that of the junior doctors has already been mentioned. The teaching unions should build links with the British Medical Association (BMA) and plan strike action together. By adopting a fighting stance these unions could build support for escalating strike action involving more and more unions, building up to a general strike aimed at bringing down the government.
It is essential that union leaders adopt this long-term strategy for industrial action, and be willing to escalate the action as far as necessary to win the fight. If they fail to convince their members that they have a strategy and the courage to win then few people will be willing to take action.
In schools and colleges all over the country teachers and students should build links at a local and regional level. Meetings should be held to discuss the government’s proposals, the politics behind them and what needs to be done next. Demands for militant action need to be developed and placed on union and political leaders.
This should be combined with a campaign to fight austerity at local government level, with Labour councillors building movements opposing the cuts and standing for the local elections in May this year on a programme of refusing to implement cuts. This would link the fight against academisation with the demand for the adequate provision of funds for schools. Corbyn and McDonnell need to stand up to the right wing of the Labour party on this question and base themselves on teachers, doctors and other workers to fight for a socialist alternative to austerity.
With a socialist programme and militant action this is a fight that it is possible to win. Capitalism is cutting society to the bone and we cannot sit on the sidelines. Socialist revolution is on the order of the day – it is up to us to make it a reality.