Education update: The ‘national challenge’, WMD schools and Uni fees to double

‘National challenge’

The government’s latest motivational device for bringing about improvements in the state education system takes the form of a ‘national challenge’, in which 638 schools are being ‘challenged’ to improve their results. The prize for success: staying open; the price of failure: being closed or turned into a city academy.

The participants in this exciting contest are all secondary schools where fewer than 30 percent of pupils currently achieve at least five A-C grades at GCSE (including English and Maths). The challenge runs from now until 2011. Any school not achieving the results target by then is liable to be closed down.

The ‘national challenge’ is a dirty trick being played by a Labour government that is desperately trying to cut costs and encourage private ownership in education.

The 30 percent figure is totally arbitrary. As NUT president Bill Greenshields, writing in the Guardian of 20 June, points out, of the schools earmarked for the challenge, 26 percent are considered by Ofsted to be among the best in the country! In fact, only 11 percent of them are considered by Ofsted to be in need of intervention.

What unites these schools, however, is that they are almost all located in very poor areas, typically associated with the multitudinous social problems stemming from poverty. Achieving the 30 percent benchmark is unrealistic for the vast majority of these schools, particularly given that child poverty is generally increasing, not decreasing.

As Greenshields put it: “In the current situation, the schools identified have had about as much chance of reaching the national challenge demands as the average person has of winning the national lottery. Now they become the targets in a very cynical political game: they have to be seen to be failing if the government is to stand any chance of convincing parents and local communities that the idea of private sector control of schools is worth a second thought.”

That is, once a school has become a certified failure, the government has the perfect excuse to turn it into a city academy or close it down.

WMD schools

The Wakefield Express City of 19 June reported that Jacobs Engineering Group, a US-based engineering firm involved in building nuclear warheads (for the British Ministry of Defence, among others), is planning to sponsor nine schools in the Ossett area of Yorkshire, which will “link up with businesses to run affairs outside local authority control”.

Jacobs are, they say, keen to help students pursue careers in the engineering industry – no doubt working for Jacobs producing nuclear warheads!

City academy exclusions

In another blow to the fast-collapsing popularity of the city academies, it has emerged that city academies are excluding pupils at several times the rate of schools under local authority control.

According to Polly Curtis, writing in the Guardian of 25 June, “The privately-sponsored state schools were responsible for 2% of all temporary exclusions and 3% of permanent exclusions, despite making up only 0.3% of state schools in England.”

The reason for this is simple: city academies have no constraints on the number of pupils they exclude, and therefore the school sponsor applies pressure to exclude ‘expensive’ kids, ie, those who are more difficult to educate because they have behavioural problems or learning difficulties. Well-behaved, successful pupils are relatively cheap to educate and act as far better walking advertisements for the sponsor company.

Uni fees to increase again in 2009

A year ago, we wrote: “Keen to woo voters, the cabinet has announced that university top-up fees will not go above £3,000 for the next two years … Very likely there will be a big increase in two years’ time.”

Well, it’s only a year later, but already the university vice chancellors are starting to talk about the need to double top-up fees. A report issued by the Higher Education Policy Institute on 3 April notes that tuition fees may have to rise to £7,000 per year in 2009. What’s more, there is talk of moving student loans onto a commercial interest rate.

These measures will of course have a further detrimental effect on the ability of working-class young people to attend university – the prospect of leaving university with a £20,000 debt is significantly more daunting for working-class students than for their middle-class contemporaries.