Last night’s public meeting at the Mollington Banastre hotel with representatives of the NUT, the NASWT, ATL and UNISON went well. I was speaking as a writer and a parent and promised I would make the transcript of my talk available on this blog – for those who couldn’t make it – or for those who want to add to and continue with the discussion.
I’ve been asked to give a short talk. Initially I chose ‘The potential impact of academies on parents and children’ as a heading and then quickly realised how ridiculous a title it was – more like a dissertation… so let’s narrow this down to:
‘Towards an analysis of the potential impact of academies on parents and children’.
This title kind of implies that we’re on the way but we don’t have all the answers…(if like me you’re a stressed out parent and you nod off during this talk – you can catch up with it later on www.parentsguidetoeyfs.wordpress.com
I wrote a chapter for a book on education last autumn. The book is “Too Much Too Soon – Early Learning and the Erosion of childhood’. The chapter was called ”A Parent’s Challenge to New Labour’s Early Years Foundation Stage”.
I described how a new parent (or a parent who is new to a particular school) may not know how the school system (and the individual school) works. This is also highly relevant to any discussion on academies - parents are subjected to a great deal of propaganda – about the system itself and about systems-within-the-system such as the Early Years Foundation Stage).
Where does this propaganda come from? In simple terms it is created by
a) The government
b) The government and businesses sending PR and targeted press releases to the media which some journalists no longer have the time to analyse properly as they should. Funding for investigative journalism is increasingly difficult to find.
c) Local authorities (following the government line)
d) And schools themselves (websites, PR) e.t.c.
Of course parents are savvy and inventive, they were not born yesterday – but many of us nonetheless find ourselves in an extraordinary vulnerable position as far as sending our children to a particular school is concerned. Personally I feel you never really know what a school is like until your child has been there for a good while or until you start to work there yourself, as a member of staff.
I’ve been asking parents about academies locally and writing about it. I spent a day in the company of parents from Shore fields Academy as they protested at the University of Chester and at Chester Town Hall. You’ll find an account of what they had to say on the blog mentioned above – I heard many different voices – most of them said the same thing: “There was no consultation” – “Not one person wanted this” – and having lived through the experience of seeing their school turned into an academy one parent summed things up: “What we are seeing now in our society is institutionalised corruption”.
Our daughter is six and she attends xxx primary school. I would not have said when she started there that it was a good school. Our current headmistress with whom I have had a great many interesting (and often difficult) discussions about education – together with her team – is succeeding in improving the school.
When my daughter started there some years ago – parents were kept at a distance – outside the gate – quite literally even when it was pouring with rain we were no allowed in to the school gates at pick up time. We didn’t even have a parent teacher association. There was a lot of bullying.
And then the culture started to change. School staff asked parents for their opinions, parents took part in all manner of events, maths days, school garden project, people started to relax more and work together more there were visible improvements. Parents teachers and head navigated their way through the painstaking process of forming a PTA and in the first year won a national award from the National Association for PTAs. I mention all this as in academy schools systems of governance in contrast appear to be undemocratic.
I’m not going to reiterate the detailed and excellent arguments put forward by the unions. I’ve noticed that some assume that I am against all academies and free schools per se. I’m not sure I am. What I’m saying is more pragmatic than that something more like “if it ain’t broke then don’t fix it”.
State schools can work and they do work. I believe that as long as parents work together with the school, as long as their suggestions are really listened to, taken up AND mechanisms are in place for criticisms to be listened to and parents are not marginalised – they can be effective and happy places. Yes, we need to change govt. policies and I will never agree with some aspects of the state school system as it stands for example sending school to school at four is far too early (the arguments on the one are in the book I mentioned - fellow co-contributors include Barry Sheerman the former chair of the government’s education committee and many international childhood experts.
As a parent the thought that our state school might be turned into an academy is dreadful. As is the thought that when my daughter is ready to start secondary schools there will be no state schools left – only academies to ‘choose’ from.
As a writer I have received testimonies from parents (and teachers) who are experiencing unethical behaviour in academies locally. Here are some examples:
- One new teacher in an academy had been working for free for six months (the equivalent of a workfare scheme in education).
- Examples of teachers completing student’s work themselves in order to meet targets
- Examples of classroom assistants being used as substituted teachers for project work inappropriately.
- Putting children with attention span problems in a 2 to 3 hour lesson
- Financial mismanagement – which favoured senior management salaries whilst leaving teaching staff without the necessary resources to teach effectively (no equipment for sessions e.. books)
- Academies cannot be put into special measures – so make an academy which fails and you are effectively creating a failing academy that can’t be failed. (N.B after having given this talk, someone queried this – so I would be glad of any comments to clear this one up).
- There are huge problems with behavioural issues - it is difficult enough to tackle bullying in a state school which has access to local authority resources but without local authority anti-bullying resources – the problem can get worse. One teacher in an academy said: “As a subject lead I experience some incidents/problems with my classes. however I am constantly interrupted by incidents in the department. I do not blame staff for his as the pupils have nowhere else to go – The punishment for verbal abuse and physical assault in totally unacceptable as i is for repeat behaviour and escalation in behaviour. Levels of abuse are tolerated, pupils are openly defiant there is complete confusion over roles and responsibilities.
I’m sorry that more parents from our school were not able to join the discussion tonight. I often think that most of the activity around a public meeting happens by word of mouth – when people go home and tell their friends (at the school gate). Some are double booked we have a PTA meeting tonight.
Having spoken about the positive sides of PTA’s I need to add a word of warning as far as academies are concerned. There is a degree of pressure right now to reduce the role of PTA’s to fundraising and to try to exclude topics from the agenda that are perceived to be ‘political’ or ‘ideological’. We’ve come up against this issue quite a number of times in ours. One example: we objected on religious, ideological and political grounds to our child being asked to ‘dress to impress’ on the day of the Royal Wedding – and were promptly told by a fellow PTA parent that if we didn’t like it we should ‘go to Libya’.
PTA’s need to be aware that ‘dissent’ is the cornerstone of democracy itself. The model PTA constitution offered by the National PTA association states that PTA’s exist not only to fund raise but also their primary purpose is to ‘further the children’s education’. To my mind this should include a discussion of the wider influences on schools such as academies. Schools have a legal obligation to actively further the involvement of parents in their children’s education.
I believe that academisation, the setting up of free schools locally and nationally will not ‘raise standards’ but lead to a deterioration in the essence of what education is truly about – it will lead to an over emphasis and further obsession with target culture.
Education should be about asking questions and finding answers, investigation, creativity and yes, in a positive sense – discipline .
Education should be about substance and NOT spin.
My other half, my daughter and I are proud to be long-standing members of Cheshire West against the Cuts. I have to say apart from being extremely hard working, the people involved are compassionate and caring. I mention this fact for a reason. We need to fight the cuts on all fronts and I believe that truth and the moral imperative is on our side. At a packed meeting of Chester Disabled People Against the Cuts my husband Richard Atkinson described what the government is doing to essential services as ‘evil’. He is an atheist, but his speech would not have been out of place in my Wirral and Chester Quaker Meeting.
He said the government cuts in the NHS health and social care were ‘evil’ because they were prompting people to accept the idea that is somehow alright to stop seeing people as human beings at all. That it is okay to judge every adult and every child – according to whether or not they can do certain tasks – and in doing so reduce human beings to a set of ‘outcomes’.
There is much more to say about this obviously than is possible in ten minutes, but the truth about academies I believe is that they will do nothing to reverse this trend.
It’s really not that complicated. The following quote came from a resident of Haringey not connected with education.
“If you have a flourishing school and if parents and teachers are happy with it, what is Mr Gove’s problem? It is his horrible Etonian ideology that wishes to privatise education so that his mates can get a cut: same with the NHS really.”