"Education" is always a top priority in politicians' speeches. This is true of Labour politicians in government who explicitly promised that it was number one on their list, and also of all others. There is a very good reason for this. It is an important issue for all voting layers in the population, across class divisions. So by playing the "education" card, a party like Labour can get on with its wooing of the middle class vote, while at the same time not risking the alienation of its working class electoral base.
But how has Labour prioritised education in practice since it came into government 8 years ago?
By the end of the 1990s, due to the general social degradation and specifically the cuts in education by successive Conservative governments, all state schools were struggling, including the comprehensive schools, which, having mostly replaced secondary modern schools in the more deprived areas were obviously going to be hardest hit by cuts.
But Labour began by adopting most of the Tory reforms. It initially left intact the proscriptive and narrow national curriculum, introduced under Kenneth Baker in 1988, with its emphasis on "core subjects" leaving out the "arts". Despite its criticisms in opposition of the regular testing of children in primary schools, for the dubious purpose of evaluating both teaching standards and pupils, these were kept. So were league tables of schools which tests fed into, to allow so-called parental "choice". Also kept was the devolution of power to "foundation" schools. Indeed, Labour has extended many of these reforms much further than the Tories would have dared. For instance one of its first moves in primary schools was to extend testing to 5-year olds.
The new Labour government also retained the Tories' revamped schools' inspection body, OFSTED, initially under the same reactionary and unpopular chief schools' inspector Chris Whitehead and continued the "swot" team invasion of so-called "failing" schools. Within 3 weeks of coming to power, Labour had "named and shamed" 18 schools.
By 2000, schools in which less than 15% of pupils gained five A-C grades at GCSE were threatened with closure. Then "Fresh Start" was introduced which imposed on "failing schools" a new government-appointed head teacher, new governors, and more often than not, these schools were taken out of local authority control and given private managers.
Actually, while David Blunkett, who became Blair's first education minister, had told a party conference before Labour's accession to power: "Read my lips, no selection by examination or interview", the new Labour government was going to make it possible for public sector schools to introduce selection of pupils. Nor did it seek to curtail the right of the surviving grammar schools in the public system to carry on with their existing selection policies.
It had always been one of Labour's much-vaunted "egalitarian" principles in the past, that schools should include all children and that classes should comprise children of mixed ability, since it had been proven that this helped the lower achievers improve and did not actually interfere with the higher achievers, contrary to previous perception. This was the basis of the comprehensive system of secondary schooling which had, ironically, finally been extended in the early 1970s by none other than Margaret Thatcher when she was Tory Education Secretary.
In April 2001, Alistair Campbell, then Blair's chief publicity official, declared that "the days of the bog standard comprehensive are over". And Blair attacked the "old comprehensive model" in which "too often schools adopt a 'one size fits all' mentality - no setting, uniform provision for all, hostile to the notion of specialisation and centres of excellence within the curriculum."
This was the signal for selection, "specialisation" and private management of schools to begin in earnest. So those schools which had become foundation schools under the Tories and had the power to decide how to spend their own budgets, were allowed to specialise in particular subjects, provided they found £50,000 in private sponsorship. This obviously meant they would be selecting pupils. In fact now the idea is that all secondary schools will become specialist schools, offering the whole curriculum, but using the extra sponsorship money, which is then added to by the government, to provide specialist facilities in languages, information and computer technology, maths, science, sport or other subjects.
Finding cheaper substitutes
While only 100 new schools have been built or rebuilt since 1997, 640 state maintained primary schools have been closed - plus 160 state secondary schools. It may be true that the falling birth rate is reducing the number of children requiring primary and nursery school places overall, but pupils enrolled in primary schools have so far gone down by only 140,530, while the number of qualified teachers overall has decreased by 1,210. In fact in secondary schools the number of pupils has increased by 280,000.
But if Labour has met its pledge to cut class sizes for 5-7 year olds, that is not the case for all other pupils. In 1998, 29.3% of all primary school classes taught by one teacher had 31 or more pupils. In January 2004 this had fallen to 12.3% - so there has been some overall improvement. But in secondary schools, the figure was 5.3% of classes with 30 or more pupils in 1994 with an increase to 8.1% in January 2004 - so a deterioration!
Obviously the only real way to reduce class sizes should be to employ more teachers. But given the difficulties, which are described later in this article, Labour has found another "statistical method" to achieve success.
Nowadays, the figure that the government likes to give out is the "pupil/adult" ratio, rather than "pupil/teacher" ratio. Because to make up for the shortage of qualified staff in schools over the years, it has more than doubled the number of support staff and "teaching assistants" - an increase from 10,590 in 1999, to 25,340 in 2004 in secondary schools and in primary schools from 44,440 to 86,790!
These assistants not only run homework clubs, provide class room support and lunch-hour cover, but those with extra qualifications are also relied upon to help children with special needs, as well as actually taking classes, like teaching English as a second language to non English-speaking pupils. In fact in some schools, instead of hiring temporary "supply" teachers to cover absence, as used to be the case, TAs are used to bridge the gap. And they are certainly a cheap alternative, considering that they often have term-time contracts only - meaning many are paid for 40 weeks of the year or fewer, with less than 25% of them on 52 weeks pay. As for pay rates, these are also far below qualified teachers, with the top level salaries at around £14,995. Only those with special qualifications to teach children with special needs match teachers' pay at £17,000 to £20,000 per annum.
However, according to a survey published by the GMB union last year, 13% of their support staff members were paid under £6.50 per hour, 30% less than £7.50 and 87% under £10.50/hr.
By September 2003, the workload of teachers was supposed to be reduced by transferring 24 non-teaching tasks to support staff, like teaching assistants, secretaries and clerical workers. The pay and grading of support staff in some local education authorities was to be increased with these "new responsibilities". However last year in November, teaching assistants in Brighton and Hove were forced to strike for 2 days after the local authority said it would reduce their paid weeks per year from 49.5 weeks to 44 weeks and replace the special needs allowance of £1,044 which some receive with a one-off payment of £450. In effect they were being asked to fund their own pay increase by a cut in their hours.
The crowning irony of this pledge to reduce teachers' "non-teaching burden" by loading the 24 tasks onto support staff was that in over 100 local education authorities, the money just was not there. £800m of the £1.1 billion meant to pay for this had been "swallowed up" by other costs, in fact in many cases, for urgent repairs to schools, so only £250m was available. So not only were the necessary additional teaching assistants not taken on, but in 86 LEAs, 900 and possibly more teaching posts were actually targeted to be cut.
If you can... teach!
But what has Labour actually done to address what it describes as the central issue in education - that is the shortage of qualified teaching staff?
By 1997, over 18,000 teachers were retiring from the profession annually with 11,000 of this total taking "early" retirement. Teachers, blamed for falling standards and drowning under the paperwork required by the many Tory initiatives like compulsory testing and league tables went to other jobs or retired on grounds of stress and ill-health in droves.
In order to recruit teachers to combat the growing shortage, the new Labour government introduced all kinds of schemes, but without much success.
At first it tried to recruit overseas teachers, offering them fixed term temporary contracts. It tried to lure teachers back from retirement offering part-time and flexible jobs. Later, it tried allowing graduates to switch to teaching without obtaining the teachers diploma , fast-tracking them to senior positions, or offering "golden hellos" of £4,000 to maths, science and language teachers, where there were the biggest shortages. It also tried changing the early retirement schemes to make it more difficult for teachers to retire early, or on grounds of ill-health. However, despite this, (or because of it) between 1999 and 2004, the number of early retirements more than doubled.
By September 2000, the huge shortfall of teachers in some subjects was at a critical level. In maths there was a shortfall of 23%, in languages 33% and in technology 40,5%! And even these figures were an under-estimate because of the extensive use by schools of temporary contracts and part-time staff, which, of course, still goes on. At that time only 50% of primary school teachers and 75% of secondary school teachers were permanent. This crisis came to a head in 2000/2001, when the Chief Inspector for Schools reported that it was the worst for 36 years, aggravated by the fact that 40% of new teachers left the profession within 3 years.
In fact by this time, teachers pay in real terms had fallen in England by 14%. So by March 2002, an above inflation increase was announced to bring starting salaries for newly qualified teachers up. This amounted to £17,628 in outer London and £20,733 in Inner London. A shortened pay scale also allowed them to reach higher salaries quicker - within 5 years instead of 7 they would get £25,746 and £28,851 respectively. The government also gave a grant of £6,000 to students studying for the PGCE teachers diploma so that they would not have to take out such large (instantly repayable) loans. In January 2003 it announced it would fund the diplomas in full, but only for certain shortage subjects like information and computer technology, maths, science and languages.
The other "incentive" to teachers was so-called "merit pay" or threshold payments - £2,000 in the first instance and additional increments over 5 years. However only about half the teachers applied for these, either because they opposed them in principle or because the paperwork was too time-consuming. Still, 30,000 of the 180,000 who applied were turned down, apparently judged as "under-performing".
Anyway, the result was that to some extent at least, the teacher shortage was somewhat alleviated. But out of the total 410,200 "qualified regular teachers" in the state sector today, 10% are part-time or temporary staff, including those recruited through the Overseas Trained Teachers Programme.
Expanding profits, not minds
Labour boasts that there has been a real increase of 41% (£8.8 billion) in the education budget since 1997 - which amounts to an increase from 4.7% of GDP to 5.6% in 2005/6. But this is still far short of the 6.5% of GDP which education received in 1975/6. And until 2000/2001, this percentage remained below that apportioned by the Conservatives in the 1990s, despite all their cuts.
Even so, one has to ask where the money has gone? Undoubtedly much of it has been paid in salaries, given the over half a million staff employed directly in teaching alone and despite the fact that the number of actual full-time classroom teachers has fallen by 400.
The answer is that a lot of it has gone into PFI and PPP deals with the private sector - to undertake the vast repairs backlog of a crumbling schools estate which is the legacy of decades of under-investment by successive governments. But one therefore has to wonder why, 7 years on, this Labour government had to announce a new £40bn "Building Schools for the Future" programme in February last year, which is meant to be the biggest school rebuilding programme since Victorian times. Within the next 15 years, every secondary school in England is meant to be rebuilt or refurbished by a mixture of public funds and PFI.
In fact, to date, there have been only 67 signed PFI contracts covering 632 schools in England, to a value of £1.8bn. Only 100 new or refurbished schools have so far opened under the "total" PFI contract which involved "design, build, finance and operate" contracts with Local Education Authorities. But in fact the "design and build" component has also been removed from some contracts in order to facilitate the take-over of schools by private companies, purely to operate and manage them, outside Local Education Authority control.
This was the idea behind Labour's early establishment of 25 "Education Action Zones" (later increased to 70) whereby private companies were invited to take over the running of schools. However it turned out that few companies were interested in investing, even though the government provided the first £500,000 and a further £250,000 to match private funding. EAZs were somewhat superceded by the "Excellence in Cities" initiative and also the Academy project.
Another aspect of expanding the private education market has, however, been the outsourcing of not only cleaning, catering and other non-education functions, but also the core functions of Local Education Authorities and even the authorities themselves - especially if these authorities have been seen as obstacles to government plans for private sector intervention in schools. Of course, if a private company is to profit from outsourcing, which is the objective, after all, this means that the service will be reduced by reducing staff and provision, or building profit margins into the original contract, or both. Either way, the actual cost to the public purse is liable to go up.
If an LEA gets a poor report from OFSTED, private companies are brought in to run many (or all) of its functions. So for instance, Nord Anglia, together with Amey Construction, have a contract worth £200m over 5 years to run 90% of Waltham Forest LEA functions including direct pupil services like Special Educational Needs, pupil welfare, National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies, etc. Around 10 LEAs have or have had private sector "partners" so far: Haringey and Leeds are with Capita, Sandwell with Nord Anglia, Southwark with WS Atkins, Swindon with Tribal (subsidiary of security firm, Group 4), etc.
However it is not all plain-sailing. WS Atkins had its contract terminated 2 years early for bad performance and Southwark LEA was handed over to Cambridge Education Associates which also runs Islington LEA. Nord Anglia has its contract with Hackney terminated after its running of the school improvement service was found unsatisfactory by OFSTED. Hackney is now run by a "not-for-profit" education trust (chaired by Mike Tomlinson, ex-chief inspector of schools).
Private companies can lose out on management fees and performance bonuses if targets for improving exam results are not met, however - as happened twice to Cambridge Education Associates, in Islington, which lost a potential £700,000. But never mind, CEA still has a turnover of £50m a year... Anyway, it is possible for companies to re-negotiate their pupil performance targets, as Serco is doing in Bradford, having never achieved them.
Many of the government's central education services have already been outsourced. Several contracts for such services were, for instance, contracted out to a not-for-profit company called CfBT, including the national roll-out of the Connexions Training Programme and elements of the "FastTrack" Teaching Programme. But now these contracts (worth £177m over five years) are to be handed over to the "for profit" company, Capita.
Capita plc is, in fact, the biggest beneficiary of government outsourcing in the country, with 70% of its turnover coming from central or local government contracts. It is literally a creation of state privatisation. Its executive chair, Ron Aldridge also happens to be one of Labour's many appointed "advisors" from the private sector. Yes, Capita remains the Dfes's "preferred bidder", even though it mal-administered the Individual Learning Accounts scheme and was found culpable of mis-selling and fraud; even though it caused a delay in the school start-up term in 2002 when it was running the contract for screening new teachers for possible criminal records; and even though it "lost" teachers' service years when it took over the Teachers Pension Scheme (a £62m contract) in March 2004!
Making the public private
One of the anachronisms of the British education system is of course its "public" schools which are actually private fee-paying schools from which most of the actual public is excluded. There are 2,328 "independent schools" in England with just under 600,000 pupils attending them - but today this figure includes City Technology Colleges and Academies, even if they are not fee-paying. Their pupil to teacher ratio is 9.4, compared with the overall average in state-maintained schools of 22.7 - less than half.
But one simple fact about these schools says it all when it comes to the quality of education delivered to pupils (if judged only by exam results, of course). Out of the top performing schools in GCSEs and A-level exams, 230 out of 300 are private. And all of the top 10 are "private".
While these schools boast huge successes and their privileged pupils get into the most prestigious universities (like Oxford and Cambridge) the real problem that most state schools have is how to get pupils to stay in school, let alone actually pass their exams.
This is illustrated by the fact that only around 40% of pupils actually sit A level exams; that the UK has the fourth highest school drop-out rate after the age of 16; and that even though 80% of jobs require at least 5 GCSEs or equivalent, half of all school-leavers do not achieve even this. Indeed, half of 16-year-olds do not pass maths with an acceptable grade and 44% fail in English.
Besides, every year there is some sort of scandal when the A level and/or GCSE results are published - because alongside the usual delays and bureaucratic failures of the examining bodies, the government has been boasting of what amounts to an exponential rise in "good grades", while universities are at the same time wringing their hands over the dismal lack of knowledge of many A level students who start their degrees.
In August last year, 96% of all A level takers passed. A record number, 22.4%, got an A-grade pass. But of course there are many ways to achieve such success, other than just lowering the standards, which is what is generally accepted to be the case - by selecting those who sit the exams, by teaching which is tailored primarily to the passing of exams, rather than expanding knowledge, and by introducing "easier" subjects.
For instance, the number of pupils opting for Physical Education and Religious Studies GCSEs has increased significantly. Another cheaper option - requiring half the teaching time and therefore of course, half the teachers' cost, is the GCSE "citizenship" course which became a compulsory national curriculum foundation subject in 2002.
The Confederation of British Industry had itself been complaining that UK productivity (!) is "damaged" by the low standard of skills displayed by school-leavers - especially in maths and English - which have not been compulsory subjects after the age of 14 years, up to now.
For all these reasons, the system for GCSEs and A levels has been under scrutiny by educational bodies and the government for some time. Tweaking the results, enforcing disciplinarian regimes in schools, etc., can only do so much. If "reforms" are to be shown to work, then, as with all of Labour's absurdities, there must be an appropriate test it can use to prove that under Labour, pupils perform better!
Mike Tomlinson, ex Chief Inspector for Schools was therefore commissioned with the job of reviewing the system and coming up with recommendations which might do the trick.
His report, finally completed last year, recommended a new 4-tier, "overarching diploma" to combine GCSEs and A levels, which would allow practical vocational qualifications to be considered on a par with academic "university entrance" qualifications. This, he argued, would help to remove what amounts to a "class divide" in secondary schooling where "vocational courses" have always been regarded as inferior to A levels. As it turned out, however, this was not going to be acceptable to the government for fear of upsetting its middle class supporters, who approve of his "traditionalism". or even more importantly, for fear of upsetting the CBI.
Blair's faith in academies
However, in the meantime, Blair's pet project was already well underway. That is, the creation of independent, privately controlled, secondary education "Academies" within the public sector. The establishment of these academies was first announced back in 2000, by David Blunkett and they are, in fact, modelled on the Tories' (albeit rather unsuccessful at the time) City Technology Colleges. Academies are meant to be sponsored by a 20% (capped at £2m) private sector "contribution", but to ensure their success, the Labour government has channelled an increasingly large chunk of public money - up to £26m on average per school, which is double what was initially estimated, towards the building of each new Academy. It is also double the average amount spent on building a "normal" secondary school.
The objective which Labour claims, is the raising of standards, which apparently relies partly on the quasi-public school ethos which is anticipated and the "innovative approach to management, governance and learning" - which private sponsors can determine, through the appointment of governors. And all this private independence is fully funded by the public purse which pays up to £7.2m a year for each school's running costs and which guarantees all future costs like salaries and any overheads.
The biggest single sponsor of Academies so far is the United Learning trust which is a subsidiary of the Church Schools Company (a charitable foundation linked to the Church of England, with Archbishop Carey as chair). This will offer a "Christian ethos" to education... It has so far pledged funding for 10 academies. This has been actively encouraged by Blair, whose own advocacy of "Faith Schools" is well-known, not to mention his friendly relations with Sir Peter Vardy - whose Foundation has 3 academies so far, including the Gateshead Emmanuel City Technology College which opened 15 years ago under the Tories. Vardy has ensured that at these schools, Biblical creationism is taught alongside what he terms "unproven" evolution.
The government itself has been lobbying the Church of England to play a leading role in its Academy Programme and create 53 C of E Academies by 2007, with the help of a special fund set up by the government to help the Church raise the sponsorship money.
Anyway, to date, 17 "Academies" have been opened. The most recent is the Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney, East London, which has been built on the site of the "failed" and demolished Hackney Downs School and sponsored by Hackney-born businessman Clive Bourne, with a £27m Richard Rogers designed timber and glass building and a Jamie Oliver-designed organic kitchen garden... The 11 year-olds which have started school there must wear uniforms, and they are streamed into ability "sets" based on admission tests.
Blair would like to see at least 200 more academies replacing "underachieving schools". But even the Economist (19 February), a champion of privatisation, selection and the autonomy of schools, voices some concern over Blair's Academy project: "They are expensive and hard to scale up. The government has cut the £2m minimum in cash required of private sponsors. But it is struggling to find philanthropists willing to make the commitment. It seems odd that the government has pushed ahead with academies...before waiting for an independent review on their value for money due out this month".
The Economist also points out that even if Labour has previously shied away from selection, that the current situation (leaving academies aside), whereby most pupils are "naturally" selected by catchment area, already favours selection by default, because rich parents can afford to buy houses near the best schools, pushing poorer parents out.
Nevertheless, the private sector stands to gain in every respect from academies. First through PFI/PPP construction contracts and then through getting the £7.2m/year running costs paid by the taxpayer. The private sponsors (whose contributions, as the Economist pointed out, are probably going to be reduced further, to £1.5m or less) get to define the way the school operates, as well as aspects of the curriculum - and it is expected that many of them will inevitably be able to introduce the selection of a proportion (10%) of their pupils by ability.
It is ironical that when Labour came in, its justification for abolishing the Tories' nursery voucher scheme and the assisted places scheme which provided scholarships to private schools for working class pupils, was on the grounds that this was using public money to increase inequality and support private education!
Throwing pupils into the marketplace
When former Secretary of State for Education, Charles Clarke was promoted to the Home Office, Blair was able to appoint a woman after his own heart as the new minister.
This was Ruth Kelly, Oxford graduate and self-confessed member of a reactionary Catholic Christian sect, who would certainly embrace Blair's passion for "Faith Schools" and creationist academies.
Her first ministerial job this February, was to launch the government's new white paper on secondary education (14-19 years) for England.
Predictably, instead of implementing Tomlinson's proposals, the government has opted to keep the present system of A levels and GCSEs. But in order to tackle the dire literacy and numeracy deficit of a substantial number of secondary school pupils, all pupils will now have to achieve a benchmark standard in maths, English and computer skills. This would be set at the level usually meant to be achieved by age 14, which will become compulsory for all - but with no actual age limit set.
As to addressing the skills shortage, which employers complain about so much, 14 new and "better-tailored" vocational diplomas are meant to be introduced by 2015. Youngsters would all be expected to remain in education until at least 18 years, because as a result of these new diplomas, they would have so much more "choice". In other words now Labour will offer not only "parental choice", but "pupil choice" too - which no doubt it hopes will pull in a few votes...
Kelly asserts that the new vocational diplomas could also be a recognised route into university, thereby helping achieve Tomlinson's egalitarian aims. But of course her transparent and oft-repeated emphasis on how employers will benefit from the new "tailored" practical training which pupils will receive, reveals at least one important motive behind the reforms. Because keeping all young people in education until at least 18 years would also remove them from the labour market - thereby depriving the bosses of a cheap workforce.
However, if youngsters are sent to employers who are paid by the government to "train" them for periods of time, this could very well make up for any loss. What is more, employers will have a prominent role in designing courses according to their own needs, which of course pupils can "choose" to fit in with. But they will not be funding this new training. So instead of having to provide decent apprenticeships at their own cost, they will be getting the government - and taxpayer - to do it for them.
Casually inserted into Kelly's text is something else, however. The government will be introducing a "purchaser"/"provider" split in education - identical to the infamous internal market which Labour retained in the NHS after the Tories' NHS "reforms". So schools and education authorities will be expected to purchase courses for pupils from outside providers if they are not able to develop and offer these themselves. And there is no doubt that many will be forced to "outsource" such courses, because Kelly does not anticipate the need for any more teachers to be employed in schools in order to implement her reforms - citing the predicted natural fall in pupil numbers as making this unnecessary. So these reforms are destined to provide yet another opening to the private education market which has already received such a boost under Labour.
...the better to exploit them
Of course, the aim of the Department of Education and Skills (Dfes) is already, in the government's own words, merely "to secure a well-educated, highly skilled workforce, in a knowledge driven economy". So pupils are really just a potential "workforce". Nothing more, nothing less.
By dismissing Tomlinson's options for pupils in the state-maintained system, which would have created a qualification closer to the International Baccalaureate, the government has bowed to pressure from the CBI, which wanted the present system retained as long as vocational training would be given greater emphasis.
The IB and other baccalaureates, on the other hand, include a broader, unspecialised curriculum of six subjects, including theories of knowledge, or philosophy, foreign languages and humanities. There is no vocational element as such, but they serve as a sound basis for future learning.
But instead of being equipped to think for themselves, today, pupils in the state sector will have the "choice" to continue along far narrower educational lines than the already somewhat limited A level system. They will be channelled into the new vocational diplomas, "covering all the main occupational aspects of the economy" (like health and social care, engineering, construction and the built environment, retail, hospitality and catering, hair and beauty, etc.) which they will be able to begin at "foundational level" at the age of 14 years! According to the government, however, this will not narrow down choices, as these pupils will still have to pursue the "full national curriculum". But would pupils so easily be able to change horses in mid-stream if they decided they had other ambitions?
In fact it is clear that there is no question of providing the vast majority of the population's children with the knowledge they need to live their lives to the full. Education is being fully geared to turn these pupils into exploitable workers for the employers, while getting taxpayers to foot the bill instead of the bosses.