Sunday, 4 December 2011

The privatisation of our schools and the re-definition of "community"

With the incursion of academy schools into Suffolk we are witnessing a re-alignment of local democracy away from the County Council towards a variety of community caucuses comprised of parents, local politicians, diocesan representatives and businesses.  "Community" is being redefined as a narrower concept based on "interested parties".  Competiton rather than cooperation rules the day.

Considering how poorly Suffolk County Council has handled the transition to two-tier schooling it is understandable that demoralised and disenchanted parents wish to take control of the situation in the Ixworth and Stanton area. Many worthwhile arguments can be made for a new 11-16 or 11-18 school in the northern part of the Thurston catchment area including the important one of what is an appropriate size for a rural secondary school.

But the problem lies in the concept of a “free school”. Like an academy, it is outside local authority oversight and free from local accountability.

Local Conservative MPs and county councillors may well support the free school initiative but then the Conservative-led government wants private organisations to run these new state-funded schools as part of its ideological commitment to extend privatisation in all walks of life.

The Church of England is also supporting the initiative but then it has always wanted to extend its influence beyond the primary sector. A “C of E secondary school” would be a considerable scoop.

Suffolk County Council is also endorsing the initiative, which is rather surprising, as their role vis-à-vis any free school will be considerably curtailed. However, they are legally unable to oppose a free school proposal so they need to take a pragmatic approach. Their true agenda in relation to defunct middle school sites will only become apparent as the years progress.

Head teachers also have an axe to grind, which may have as much to do with opportunism and personal advancement as a proper regard for the broader educational situation.

Educational planning in Suffolk is in a state of flux and those with vested interests are forming alliances to fill the vacuum. Parents, however, should pause before giving their unqualified support to the setting up of a free school. On reflection they may wish to exercise their right to demand a new inclusive community secondary school at Ixworth not an undemocratic exclusive free school.

Parents should say no to free schools for very important practical reasons. Free schools take pupils and money from existing schools; they increase social segregation; they can be inefficient and wasteful of scarce resources; they can put making a profit before educational value; and finally, and possibly most crucially, they are not democratically accountable.

The Coalition Government claims to want to increase localism but in practice it is destroying the role of local authorities and replacing local democracy with a fragmented and chaotic market system. Competition among schools, rather than cooperation, will become a major driving force. We need to extend and develop our local community schools within a genuinely collaborative system.

Suffolk children deserve access to a good, general education administered within a proper democratic framework, untainted by the profit motive. And we all need locally-based, well-planned, and long-term development of our schools, free of the whims and caprices of a central government that is here today and gone tomorrow.

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