A hundred education workers and members of the public came to Falmouth on Monday for an important debate on Michael Gove’s Academies, or ‘Free’ Schools. The tone of the meeting was one of out-right opposition to the changes, with schools across the country given a choice between becoming Academies or facing cuts to staff.
The panel, which consisted of Christine Blower (General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers), David Woods (Head of Services at Cornwall Council), Graham Walker (Shadow Education Secretary at Cornwall Council) and Pat McGoven (Head Teacher of Helston College) all expressed their views on the subject. Of twenty or so people invited to speak in support of Academies – zero agreed to talk. Not much of a debate then, but some interesting insights were offered into both sides’ opinions.
Christine Blower said she is a ‘huge supporter of democratic local authorities’ and warned that contrary to what Gove is saying, the Academies bill is ‘intensely centralising’ and a ‘solution looking for a problem’. Lib Dem David Woods said that the bill was a ‘lawyer’s charter’ as it is dangerously open to interpretation.
Some interesting facts emerged from the meeting:
- There are currently over 20 schools currently applying for Academy status in Cornwall
- School performance in Cornwall is higher than average for the UK
- Free schools in Sweden ‘exacerbated social division’. In Finland, the education system is excellent – and there is no privatisation in the school sector
- 28 schools are making redundancies in Cornwall
- 118 schools in the county have less than 120 pupils. Small schools are under more pressure to become Academies.
The driving factor behind the rush to become Academies is fear. Schools are threatened with financial uncertainty if they stay in the local authority, and are offered extra funding. However, when the council link is removed, these schools will have to fill the gaps in terms of purchasing resources and services – reducing this extra funding significantly.
That there is no coherent resistance to Academies in Cornwall is a worry which one NUT member made clear – ‘isn’t the role of the NUT to resist these reforms, not to debate them?’. A representative from the Anti-Academies Alliance would have been welcome. Cornwall Anti-Cuts Alliance had a stall but no speaker on the platform unfortunately.
National School Students Union
One issue that I raised was the formation of a National School Students Union to give students themselves in these schools a clear and democratic voice, linking them with other schools across the country. Christine Blower claimed that ‘Student Voice’ was its equivalent. But the scheme is relatively unknown and unused by school students and is not a presence in many (if not most) secondary schools across the country. However, she did state it is ‘appropriate for students to have a say’.
Pat McGoven of Helston College was ‘very supportive’ of such a move. And the Head of Services at Cornwall County Council said the idea was ‘perfect’, noting that there was ‘no mention whatsoever of students in the academies bill’.
Co-Operative Schools – An Alternative?
An idea which may appeal to socialists as well as liberals is the possibility of threatened schools becoming co-operatives. Helston College are considering this – the Co-op Party in Cornwall should get behind this and suggest it to the schools considering becoming academies.
It’s going to be a long road ahead against Academies. But with the government looking increasingly weak – they may break easily over the issue.