Sunday, 1 August 2010

Saved by the Bill?

The recent Academies Bill introduced by Michael Gove is another in a long line of name changing, selection varying and fiscal altering initiatives introduced in recent years that has left the secondary education system in England and Wales resembling an open market place for all. Private schools, Academies, Comprehensives, Grammar Schools, Secondary Moderns, Faith schools, Specialist schools and more are all currently on offer for children when they reach that grand old career defining age of eleven.

Currently only 7% of schools in England and Wales are private fee paying entities so the market is (although heavily influenced) not one solely based on being able to produce hard cash upfront. The issues surrounding the morality of these schools have long been debated (and need to re-addressed) but with the recent decrease in interest in private schooling post the credit crunch it is the state system that is now under pressure to try and offer more ‘choice’ and greater freedom from the state without the fee paying expense.

The government’s bill aims to allow this greater freedom by expanding the amount of academies in the country. Under the Labour government academies, or city academies as they were originally known, were created to improve failing schools by giving them more power to solve their own problems and on the whole these seem to have been a success at improving some of the schools concerned. So the idea being implemented is nothing new only now it is being made available not just to schools who were failing in the state system but to schools who excel in the system.

The structure of these academies allows for 10% of the school to be invested in by a donor whose benefits include having governors on the school board and influence in selection criteria and on areas of the curriculum outside of the core national programme. These donors have so far been in the mould of individual wealthy benefactors, select businesses and charitable organisations of mainly religious background. The latter have been the more common with as many as half of academies believed to be backed by religious organisations.

With this new structure available to them many successful schools in both urban and rural areas will no doubt see themselves improving in terms of results and thus increase the already rising competition for places. This in turn will surely heighten the gap between well performing schools and poor performing schools and leave the system as elitist and fragmented as it always has been, if not more. Add to that the increase in religious and business influence in education and we end up with schools being prey to the bias of certain groups and individual interests as well.

From the Tripartite System with its eleven plus examination to the more egalitarian Comprehensive ideal that lost its way in large towns and cities with the increasing gap between rich and poor causing the appearance of successful schools in catchment areas with higher house prices and poorer schools appearing in areas of deprivation, the system has always had its share of pitfalls. But now it seems we are left with the leftovers from both these flawed systems as well as new government schemes that are unable to remedy, and perhaps even enhance, the poor factors of the former two.

Until the link between poor schools and deprivation and poverty are cemented into the centre of any argument on the education system there is no doubt that inequality and fiscal separatism will occur. The idea of a market place for education is one that will no doubt remain, with the idea of parent choice or school selection of pupils as the cornerstone of the system’s values. Education all the way to University level has been a victim of this market place ideal, leading many to believe that education is only there as a precursor to monetary gain and prestige and nothing more.

Unless both the school and the parent are relegated into second place and replaced by the needs of a new system that generates an equal footing for all, as well as social mobility in deprived urban areas, education will continue to follow market trends with success for some and failure for many.

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