Worlds of Education

Reclaiming democratic community education: the tide is turning

published 31 January 2019 updated 31 January 2019

By Howard Stevenson, University of Nottingham

Central to the strategy adopted by those seeking to privatise public education has been the creation of the so-called ‘independent public school’. These are schools that are nominally in the public sector but detached from traditional forms of democratic community control.

They are encouraged to behave as businesses competing in commercial markets and often have substantial private sector involvement. ‘Charter schools’ in the USA, New Zealand’s ‘partnership schools’ and England’s ‘academy schools’ all provide examples of these so-called public-private partnerships – and all are now facing serious challenges.

In NZ the Labour-led coalition has abolished partnership schools while in the US the explicitly union-busting charter schools are not only seeing signs of growing unionisation, but of industrial action. In December 2018 the first major strike by teachers in a charter network took place when teachers across Acero’s chain of 15 schools in Chicago withdrew their labour over stalled contract negotiations.

In England there is growing evidence of ‘coalitions of resistance’ in which alliances of unions, parents and community representatives are pushing back against the drive to ‘academise’ community schools.

English academy schools first emerged as ‘grant-maintained schools’ more than 30 years ago as part of Margaret Thatcher’s radical programme of New Right reform in education. At that time schools that wanted to ‘opt-out’, and convert to grant-maintained status, needed to win a ballot of the school’s parent body.

The ballot often acted as a focal point for groups who wanted to keep the school in a local government system with democratic community control. Many such campaigns were successful and ensured that the Thatcherite ‘opting-out’ project had only limited success.

In time grant-maintained schools were replaced by academy schools – a different name, but in essence the same idea. Academy schools were removed from the family of local government schools in their community, allowed schools to depart from national standards (such as those relating to the curriculum and employee working conditions) and encouraged the contracting out of ‘back office services’ (estates, catering, payroll, human resource management).

One significant difference in the new academy schools however was that ‘conversion’ no longer required a ballot of parents. School governing bodies could decide to convert to academy status, or where a school was judged as ‘failing’ by the inspectorate, a school could be forced to academise, under the sponsorship of a school judged to be more successful.

The removal of the right of local communities to determine for themselves the future of their local school allowed central government to drive forward the academies project much more easily. Since 2010 the Conservative Party has been committed to a huge expansion of the academies project, including a stated commitment for all primary and secondary schools to be academies.

It has been willing to use all the means at its disposal to achieve this objective – including offering financial incentives, the law (backed by the courts), the inspectorate (apparently independent, but deeply embroiled in the drive to academisation), the resources of the civil service and the pressurising of school governors that some have described as bullying.

The inevitable consequence of this huge mobilisation of state power is that the academy sector in England is now substantial. It represents a majority of secondary schools, although a much smaller proportion of primary schools. Just over half of school pupils in England are now educated in academy schools.

What is equally clear is that the ideological experiment that academies represent is becoming increasingly discredited. Several research studies have indicated that there is no significant evidence that academy schools perform better than their local authority counterparts. At the same time, much has been sacrificed as part of the drive to turn English public sector education into a market.

School governance has become increasingly opaque while it is clear that the market pressures that schools face (and which academisation intensifies) have contributed to chronic system ‘gaming’ in which schools adopt a range of dubious practices to enhance league table performance.

The most obvious example is the deliberate excluding of students (using a range of means) who might have a negative impact on the school’s public examination results. This practice is now so widespread it has been given a name – ‘off-rolling’ (the deliberate removal of a student from the school’s roll).

This privatisation-creep within the English public education system has never gone unchallenged, despite the enormous inequality in power and resources between those driving academisation and those contesting it. What is significant at the current time is that despite all the efforts to ensure academy schools become the new ‘normal’ in public education in England resistance not only continues, but is growing.

In recent months there has been a significant increase in the numbers of campaigns that are challenging the academisation of their community school. For many years these campaigns have been co-ordinated by the Anti-Academies Alliance, an umbrella group of unions, parents and civil society organisations. Simon O’Hara, a spokesperson for AAA reported ‘ there is no doubt that over the last year the number of campaigns has increased’.

One of the most striking features of these local campaigns is the way they have brought parents, community members and education workers together in genuine grassroots alliances rooted in communities.

Campaigners often aspire to such alliances but these can be extraordinarily difficult to enact in practice.  However, many of those involved see these broad-based community coalitions as central to the success of any campaign. Kirstie Paton is a teacher and parent at John Roan School which is currently fighting against being forced to academise. Kirstie attributes the success to date of the John Roan campaign to being able to forge such an alliance - ‘ The key to building our campaign has been the creative alliance of parents, staff, student and the wider community’ (see the John Roan Resists Facebook group).

Another feature of the campaigns is the way in which traditional and new forms of organising have often been melded together to publicise the issues and develop collective confidence. In many cases workers threatened with academisation have taken strike action, and by working with the community they have often done this with the support of parents.

Public meetings, street stalls, petitions and lobbies of key decision making meetings have all been organised, but these have been combined with Twitter storms, blogs, Facebook pages and WhatsApp groups. Campaign meetings have been live streamed and community based film makers used to place material on YouTube. There are literally too many campaigns to mention, but Hands Off Barclay School, Save Lewes Schools, and Love Brum Schools provide just some examples. There are many more.

The energy, commitment and courage of these campaigns is as significant as it is inspiring. After years of relentless pressure to dismantle public education and close down the democratic spaces which public schools both need and nurture it is clear that parents, education workers and citizens are pushing back.

The community school is a community resource, not the provider of a product to self-interested consumers. Community action is seeking to reclaim education as a community resource and a democratic space in which citizens work together to achieve common goals. There is a rediscovery of ‘the public’.

The scale of the task is enormous and the odds of success can seem slender – but the proliferation of campaigns we currently see show that people are far from deterred. The challenge for all of us who share these aspirations is to support where we can, help connect our disparate struggles where this is possible and collectively build the movement that can make what seems unrealisable become possible.

Breaking: immediately after this blog was written it was announced that plans to academise several schools in Sussex had been abandoned.

Hear Howard Stevenson speaking at a ‘Take Back Our Schools public meeting here.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.