Comrades. Firstly, I'd like to thank you for inviting me to speak this evening on the crucial topic of the systematic erosion of the education profession at the hands of this repugnant Tory government. I stand before you tonight as a Labour Party member and as an active member of the National Union of Teachers. Indeed, it filled my heart with pride when a few short weeks ago Jeremy Corbyn became the first ever Labour Party leader to address my union’s national conference. Indeed, Jeremy is the first politician of any party to come to the NUT conference since the unfortunate incident when David Blunkett was forced to hide in a broom cupboard as a group of teachers attempted to confront him after he used his address to conference to berate teachers for not getting behind his educational reforms. I'm happy to report the same fate did not befall Jeremy. Our leader came to my conference to praise hard working teachers and to offer support for the struggles we face in our daily jobs and for the struggles we face as we are in the process of balloting members for discontinuous industrial action in opposition to Nicky Morgan’s white paper.
This is a white paper with the wrong priorities. Rather than focusing on the crisis in teacher recruitment and retention, the real-term cuts to school funding, the lack of school places and the devastating impact that the new curriculum will have on our children, the Tories are choosing to plough on with their desire to turn every school into an academy by 2022.
After the supposed U-turn on forced academisation some members of the public, and indeed some members of the NUT, felt that victory had been secured and that the need for strike action had melted away. I was not convinced, even on the day of the announcement, and so it was that 3 days later Nicky Morgan stood before the Commons and reiterated the desire of the Tory party to see every school become an academy by 2022. The policy was still in place, only the mechanisms of getting there had changed slightly.
This white paper threatens the future of our state education system as it is undemocratic, it ignores evidence and it will be expensive to implement.
If the Tories get their way all schools will become academies, which would mean an end to local authorities being able to offer support to schools and teachers. Some may decry the involvement of local authorities and their provision of educational services but over 80% of schools currently in local authority control are judged good or outstanding. These schools have, wisely, chosen to stay under local authority control and we must ask the question, if the system is not broken why are the Tories so doggedly determined to fix it?
In a further blow to democracy in our schools, Nicky Morgan has said that she wants to end the right for schools to elect parent governors. What madness is this, when schools that beat at the very heart of local communities can no longer have members of the school community being part of the decision-making process. Parent governors act as an important checks and balance mechanism to make sure that the needs of the educational professionals who run our schools work in tune with the parents who access our educational services.
A few weeks ago in PMQ’s, when pressed by Jeremy Corbyn, David Cameron said that the evidence showed that becoming an academy offered schools the best chance of improvement. Kevin Courtney, the NUT Deputy General Secretary, wrote to Nicky Morgan on the 23rd March and the 12th April asking her to provide the evidence that this was the case. It is with no great surprise that I tell you that whilst Nicky Morgan finally replied to Kevin’s request she has not provided any firm evidence to demonstrate that academies are the most efficient way to help schools improve. When asked to comment on the impact academisation has on school improvement, Professor Stephen Machin, from the Centre for Economic Performance at the LSE has clearly stated, and I quote, ‘I don’t think we have any evidence on that so far. We certainly have no evidence at all for primary schools.’
What spurious evidence Nicky Morgan has attempted to use is very much open to scrutiny. Let’s take her claim that the percentage of pupils achieving the expected level in reading, writing and maths, at the end of Key Stage 2 in primary academies has risen by 4% from 67% in 2014 to 71% in 2015. This information was indeed true, but it only applied to sponsored academies, which themselves only make up a third of primary academies in general. Indeed, the majority of academies, known as convertor academies, have only improved by 2% during the same period, absolutely in line with the improvement made by LEA primary schools.
Equally, Nicky Morgan’s attempts to argue that convertor secondary academies have made improvements does not stand up to scrutiny. These convertor academies were generally higher achieving schools already and indeed sponsored secondary academies, those schools forced to find a financial partner to help them along, have performed 11.7% below national target levels over the past 5 years.
Even that arch-nemesis of the teaching profession, Ofsted, reported late last year that many academy chains are performing badly.
Remember how Michael Gove set out to win us over to the glorious Utopia that is academisation? He claimed that academies would in effect be state funded independent schools. Comrades, you go to inner city Leeds, inner city Bradford, inner city Birmingham, inner city Norwich, go north, south, east and west, you can throw all the money you want at schools but you’re not going to find Eton in East Ham, you’re not going to find Harrow in Hull, you’re not going to find Rodean in Rotherham.
How dare the Tories with their old school ties and and their old boys’ networks try to take us for fools by dangling gold before our eyes yet giving us only tin.
The cost of converting all schools to academies has been estimated at £1.3 billion. Is this money going to fund the education of our most disadvantaged pupils? No, this estimated £1.3 billion is the cost of hiring lawyers and PR experts in order to turn schools that currently work closely with local authorities to manage their budgets, into a multitude of independent businesses. At a time when schools across the country are being forced to make compulsory redundancies amongst qualified teaching staff it is abhorrent that money is being squandered in this way.
Indeed, the only people in education who appear to be benefitting from the change to academy status are the growing number of headteachers and chief executives whose wages are now outstripping even the Prime Minister. Sir Daniel Moynihan, a former headteacher who is now the chief executive of the Harris academy chain, is earning over £400,000 a year. Let me remind you comrades, this is tax payer’s money going to line the pockets of one man, rather than providing resources for thousands of children.
And don’t get me started on the increasing number of academy schools and academy chains that have got into deep water with some serious financial irregularities. Not so long ago we had the fiasco when two academy groups, AET and E-Act, were served with a warning from the Government about their financial dealings and indeed were barred from opening further schools, whilst having a number of schools taken from their control. Again, I emphasize, this is public money they are being so cavalier with and again I must point out that it is the education of our children that is being put at the centre of this political pantomime.
We now have Regional Schools Commissioners. These mysterious people seemed to emerge fully formed from nowhere in particular in 2014. Initially these 8 people had no legislative basis but had considerable powers delegated from the Secretary of State. Furthermore, they were supported by Headteacher Boards to advise them. These are made up largely of heads of academies within the regions. Some are elected by local academy heads and others are appointed or co-opted. Regional Schools Commissioners have been appointed on salaries which in some cases are over £140,000 a year. Staffing costs in each office are up to £260,000. Payments for academy heads serving on the Head Teacher Boards are £500 per day and head teachers are expected to spend at least half to one day per week on the role. This is an absolute waste of money and resources. It was not asked for, it was imposed and flies in the face of any idea of autonomy for schools that Nicky Morgan talks about. These Regional Schools Commissioners are Nicky Morgan’s henchmen, sent into local authorities in order identify schools that are ripe for academisation. Indeed, these commissioners are measured against performance indicators which include increasing the number of schools that become academies within their Region.
It’s all very well talking in generalities about the dangers of forcing schools into becoming academies but I’d like to tell you a little about the day to day damage that has been caused by the most recent curriculum reforms. Since 2000 I’ve taught English in Secondary Schools in Keighley, Bradford, Leeds and, for the past 8 years, in Knaresborough. During that time, I have been able to nurture and guide hundreds of GCSE students towards achieving suitable English Language and English Literature GCSEs. This has been done on the basis that we teach a text, the students gain a good understanding of the text, then we conduct a piece of coursework. Of course, there have been end of course exams where the students revisit some of these texts in exam conditions. The coursework element has allowed students across a range of abilities to access texts and elements of the English language over time and allowed them to go into their exams with the confidence of a banked set of marks. Equally, when the students sat exams in which they would analyse 2 novels, a Shakespeare play, a twentieth century play and a bank of 16 poems, they were allowed clean copies (without any notes) as reference points in the exams. But this was not good enough for Michael Gove, and latterly Nicky Morgan. Now, my students have to study the same number of texts across a two year course but the coursework has been cut completely. My current GCSE cohort will have to go into exams in the Summer of 2017 and not only answer complicated questions on these complicated works of literature, they have to sit the exams without any texts in front of them. This Government is asking our children to remember the entire contents of 2 novels, 2 plays (including the obligatory Shakespeare) and 16 poems. Comrades, if I need to do a bit of DIY at home or fix a minor problem on my car, I visit my local library and take out a book on the subject or I find the solution to my problem online. No-one is ever going to take away my source material and 18 months later ask me to do the job without being able to reference the source material. Let’s tell those Tories in the Commons that they can’t take notes into the house to help them deliver speeches. Let’s see how they would flounder without recourse to facts, statistics and quotes. Let’s see how they would like to be put in the very conditions that they are applying to our young people.
You’ll maybe have heard that in primary education the situation is even more farcical. In their wisdom as the purveyors of all that is right and proper the Department for Education has created a whole new definition for the use of exclamation marks. I don’t want to brag comrades but I have a BA (Hons) in English Language and Literature, as well as a Masters degree in English and I can tell you that an exclamation mark is a punctuation mark usually used after an interjection or exclamation to indicate strong feelings or high volume, and often marks the end of a sentence. I can also be used to end an imperative sentence. The DfE has now told us that primary school pupils will only get credit for using exclamation marks in sentences beginning with 'what' or 'how'. What nonsense! Exclamation mark.
In the past weeks we have seen the DfE in meltdown as first the baseline tests for primary school pupils were scrapped and then the spelling test for Year 2 pupils was cancelled because the paper was posted on the internet. Both of these calamitous mistakes have cost countless hours of work for dedicated, hardworking teachers and have cost millions of pounds in miss-administration, money that would have been better spent paying well-qualified teachers and paying for more teaching resources.
Governement attitudes towards highly-qualified teachers are a further bone of contention within my profession. The wrong priorities white paper aims to take away the rigorous qualification process that graduates have to go through to enter the world of teaching. This process has already been eroded over the past 5 years as Schools of Education within universities have been sidelined in favour the Teach First and Teach Direct training programmes. These new training models are primarily school based training schemes, with the role of universities marginalized to being little more than accreditation boards. This is a dangerous precedent and I’ve already heard of a number of cases where, rather than a gradual development of pedagogy and practice has enabled trainees build up their knowledge and confidence of classroom teaching techniques, many young teachers are thrust straight into the classroom working with heavy time tables with little time for reflection and opportunity to make mistakes. The Government want to go even further and give headteachers the final say over who does and who doesn’t become an accredited teacher. This would be a dangerous precedent Comrades. This model would force trainees to buy into the culture and ethos of individual schools, rather than the culture and ethos of education in a general sense.
So, we know the dangers of this white paper. We know the calamities that have already befallen the DfE. We know how fractured and competition led our education system would be if they Tories are allowed to get away with this. In light of all this my union, the National Union of Teachers, is currently balloting our members for discontinuous strike action. We do not undertake this ballot lightly. It is our last recourse in the face of 6 years of our pay and conditions being run down, 6 years of us working in underfunded schools, 6 years of us seeing our most disenfranchised pupils fall into further poverty (whether that be financial poverty or the poverty of aspiration), 6 years of seeing civil servants and politicians playing political games with our school systems and our school curriculums.
We will take strike action and we will hold this Government to account but we need the support of the Labour Party to assist us in getting the message across to the public. As a Labour Party member and as an NUT activist I’m asking you to ask 4 simple questions to anyone who talks to you about the wrong priorities white paper:
1) Do you want schools to become undemocratic? Do you want boards of governors to be made up of people who come from the sector of business and industry, at the expense of parent and teacher governors?
2) Do you want your children to be taught by unqualified teachers? Already academies and free schools are allowed to employ unqualified teachers. Full academisation would sound the death knell to our cherished profession. If we value education, then we must value the people who are qualified to provide education.
3) Do you want children with special educational needs to be amongst the most disenfranchised in our schools? These SEN pupils rightly need greater funding to enable them to access education. Already evidence is emerging that academies and free schools are looking at reducing their provision for SEN pupils.
4) Do you want schools to be run as profit making organizations? Education funding has already been cut in real terms and one can only imagine what the landscape would look like if companies are to be allowed to remove profits from schools.
Indeed, it is this final point that concerns me most. The behemoth that is TTIP sits waiting for ratification in the European Parliament and should this be passed the whole of our public sector becomes rich pickings for these ravenous American corporations. Whilst we look to conflict zones around the world for signs of the next global dispute, it is my belief that World War 3 will not be fought out on a battlefield, it will be planned in the boardrooms of global capitalism, it will be fought in our schools and hospitals and the euphemistic ‘collateral damage’ will be teachers and pupils, doctors, nurses and patients.
Comrades, at last we have a Labour Party offering a true opposition to Bullingdon bully boy Tories. In 2020, if not before, we’ll have a Labour Government, with socialist values, putting people before profits and standing up for the rights of teachers and other public sector workers. I urge you all to support the industrial action taken by the NUT. Together we can defend our education system, together we can educate to build a more include and better Britain.