Education, but not as we know it

A lesson from Will Hodges on the coalition government's radical – and controversial – schools policies

"Ask me my three main priorities for government, and I tell you: education, education, education." Tony Blair's famous speech to the 1996 Labour Party conference outlined the then prime minister's stance on schooling in the United Kingdom. While Blair has long since departed from the domestic political scene, his shadow still looms large. Sixteen years after his address, education is once again at the top of the political agenda as the coalition government looks to undertake the biggest shake-up of the UK's schooling system since the 1960s.

At the forefront of the government's proposed reforms are plans to convert a large proportion of the UK's existing state maintained secondary and primary schools into academies and free schools. The initiative, spearheaded by education secretary Michael Gove, aims to shift responsibility for managing schools away from local government by giving more independence to schools themselves. The first step in Gove's ambitious overhaul has been the expansion of the academy system, first introduced by Labour in 2000. The move saw a small number of state-funded comprehensives break away from the authority of local councils and begin reporting directly to central government. In return for no longer relying on local authorities for funding, these schools were given more autonomy on curriculum, staff salaries and bringing in external services such as special needs care. The Tories have embraced academies with fervour and the number of them in the UK increased from just 207 at the time the coalition government was formed in May 2010 to 1,070 by August 2011.

Since then, Gove has gone one step further by introducing the free school programme. The initiative, based loosely on the US charter school programme, grants independent groups, such as parent or teacher groups or charitable organisations, the means to found and manage new schools under supervision from central government. Like academies, free schools have significantly more flexibility on curriculum and teacher payscale than their comprehensive counterparts. In September 2011, there were 24 free schools in existence in the UK and a further 71 are due to open at the start of the 2012/13 academic year. Furthermore, the government has pledged to invest £4 billion in new free schools between now and 2016.

The opposition

The free school programme has met with considerable resistance from various groups, not least the opposition government. Unlike the academy programme which converts existing schools into revamped institutions at relatively little cost to the taxpayer, free schools usually have to be built from scratch and are often established in locations close to existing state schools and where, it's claimed, there's little need for new educational facilities. The result has been that some existing comprehensives have found themselves losing pupils to their new competitors, leaving these schools undersubscribed.

Meanwhile, as it's now been in existence for over a decade, there's been considerable debate as to the effectiveness of the longer established academy system. The government has reported that nearly all academies have seen significant improvements in academic results since their conversion from comprehensives. However, there have been suggestions that the government has deliberately encouraged already high achieving comprehensives to convert to academies, thereby artificially boosting the overall success rate of the academies programme.

A private function?

A more radical approach to revamping the education sector in the UK would be a move towards the complete privatisation of the school system. A white paper released recently by a think tank suggested that many schools could be run more effectively as private businesses where the shareholders - teachers and private investors - stand to make profits in return for the school performing well academically. The proposal is based on the "John Lewis" business model, named after the department store where employees are incentivised through shares in the company's profits.

While the government has so far given little hint that it would be willing to back such a radical scheme, the increasing interest of the private sector in the education system suggests that such a move may not be long in coming. Barclays Bank is just one of several firms to have lent its support to the free schools and academies programmes. The bank has offered £1 million to groups that want to set up free schools in the UK and has also invested £15 million in financial management courses for potential founders, a move that certainly ties in with the Tories' stated long-term aims of cutting public spending and growing the role of the private sector within society.

So, although the current and potential future policies of the coalition government are now far removed from those of the Blair administration, it looks likely that the question of how British children are to be educated will remain a hot topic on the political agenda.

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