No “skin in the game”, no vote?

Ian Cowie of the Daily Telegraph wrote a post yesterday arguing for “a tax-based alternative to the Alternative Vote”.

Basically, this would involve limiting the franchise to those who pay at least £100 of income tax each year, while excluding those “large numbers of people who have no ‘skin in the game’ and who may even comprise the majority of voters in some metropolitan areas today”. Pensioners and mothers (even single mothers, Mr Cowie?) would retain the vote, however, which is nice of him.

Now I’m not remotely interested in discussing the merits of this worthless idea. Maybe Mr Cowie will claim that those objecting to him are “humourless lefties” who “can’t take a joke” – but the final couple of sentences suggest that he is deadly serious. Even if accepted as satirical, it’s a satire that rests on some unpleasantly dismissive attitudes: “no skin in the game” (says the comfortably well-off journalist of those who end up bearing the brunt of job losses and cuts), “everyone who gets out of bed in the morning to go to work”, and so on.

Mr Cowie’s proposal will, of course, never get anywhere near being adopted. But as Anna Hedge pointed out on Twitter, this is yet another example of how some on the political right are feeling emboldened to say things they would never have dared utter in the past 15 or 20 years.

And while there is no prospect of an income tax-based franchise becoming reality, such nakedly “class-war” proposals contribute to an atmosphere in which significant democratic reform becomes even less thinkable (let’s see how that “elected House of Lords” looks once the proposals are finally unveiled, eh?), public services are easily removed from democratic control to control by those with some “skin in the game” (see: free schools, GP commissioning), and the political concerns and expression of those “who may even comprise the majority of voters in some metropolitan areas today” are systematically delegitimised.


Academies: conversion and campaigning

Our local comprehensive has apparently announced to staff that it will convert into an academy on 1 November. As the school term only began at the end of last week, it’s hard to see what (if any) consultation the governors have carried out, though I’m sorely tempted to put in a freedom of information request to find out.

In the meantime, I’ve been checking out the website of the Anti-Academy Alliance, a campaign composed of “unions, parents, pupils, teachers, councillors and MPs”. The website summarises the reasons why the government’s academies programme is damaging for education, including:

  • A two-tier education system in which “outstanding” schools go it alone, leaving local education authorities to deal with the schools that need most help – but on reduced budgets.
  • Removal of schools from community ownership and democratic control, purely by a vote of the governors (who currently lack any mandate for this, having been elected before these proposals were introduced).
  • While academies are given more money, they will now have to buy in services previously provided by the LEA. (Employment lawyers in particular are going to do well out of this.)
  • In practice, many academies will not be run by their headteachers and governors, but by academy chains and edubusinesses. (Parents, get ready for being told on a regular basis that your school “needs approval from head office” before taking some course of action. You don’t get to elect “head office”, by the way.)
  • Loss of co-ordinated approaches to teacher training, Special Educational Needs, Early Years teaching and so on.
  • Inability for LEAs to plan new schools to reflect population changes.

On the positive side, though, Toby Young will be able to get his children learning Latin without having to pay school fees, so it’s not all bad.

Attempts are being made to set up a local campaign along the lines of the national Anti Academies Alliance. In the case of our local comprehensive, I suspect there is little scope for reversing the decision to convert. Local campaigns should be aimed more widely than the schools that are currently proposed to convert. As someone put it to me by email:

once a critical mass of schools “go academy” the LEA is virtually abolished. That has huge implications for a whole range of services which will ultimately be much more expensive if they can be provided at all.

That is probably the message that needs to be put across: not just the implications for each individual school, but for the consequences for the educational system in the borough as a whole (in which parents already feel disempowered by the complexities and uncertainties of the admissions process, a process which can only be made more complicated by conversions to academy status).

The question is whether parents can be persuaded that it’s better for non-academy schools to hang together rather than to try to gain the perceived short-term advantages for “first-movers” out of LEA control. In many ways it reminds me of demutualisation of building societies, where people were happy to grab the money and run – and only later did we face the consequences.

The cost of “free schools”

The government’s flagship education policy is the creation of so-called “free schools”, and the first steps to implementing this have been taken by the announcement that all schools are to be invited to become “academies”, removed from local education authority (LEA) control.

It’s claimed that “freeing” schools will raise standards and give parents more choice. My view is that anyone who thinks that has clearly not experienced the secondary school admissions process: a process which is not about parents choosing schools, but about schools choosing children, with some parents spending literally years in anxiety and fear about what might happen if their children end up on the losing side in our divisive and unequal educational system.

So that’s one reason why I’m sceptical about “free schools”. But another reason is that “freeing” schools from LEA control is really about centralising control in the hands of the Department for Education – as both Simon Jenkins and Matthew Taylor pointed out in two excellent articles yesterday.

Simon Jenkins points out that education secretaries and prime ministers have been singing this song for over two decades now, to little effect. The only way in which Gove’s scheme can succeed is for him to “push the nuclear button and give [schools] control over their admissions”. Jenkins continues:

[T]he one really creditable effort of British education since the war has been the battle for some equality of opportunity within the state education sector, even if in big cities it has not always worked. If Cameron and Gove really mean to reverse this, to revert to 11-plus selection and educational segregation, they had better say so, and face the political music.

In the absence of this (almost inevitably coalition-destroying) course of action, it is likely that few schools will be keen to “free” themselves from the “support in staffing and admissions” provided by LEAs. The undermining of LEAs is just another example of the “dreary abuse of local democracy” that has driven the centralisation of the British state since 1979.

Matthew Taylor, coming from a somewhat different political perspective from Simon Jenkins, describes his own (at times reluctant) involvement in the formation of Labour’s academy schools policy in the last decade. The original idea of the academies was to increase capital expenditure in deprived areas. By contrast:

The redistribution element has gone, indeed it must be most likely that it will be more privileged schools and sets of parents who take up the new freedoms and funding streams.

Second, rather than putting grit in the oyster of the local schools system the policy is now to smash the oyster entirely.

Schools already have more freedom than is often recognised, Taylor argues. Conversely, “local authorities can play a vital role in addressing problems in schools that are not succeeding or in danger of getting into trouble”, where volunteer governors may struggle (for example, in getting rid of an incompetent headteacher).

The question of failing schools is critical to this. As Taylor observes:

Michael Gove wants an open market in schooling, but markets only succeed if businesses are regularly allowed to fail. Children only have one education so we can’t be as relaxed about failure in schools as we might be about failure in the high street.

There is absolutely no question that the combination of encouraging all manner of new entrants into school governance along with residualising the local authority role will lead to many more school failures (this is not scaremongering, it is the logical consequence of the policy).

How will the coalition deal with this? In the absence of an LEA, who will step in where governors and headteachers are unable to address problems effectively? Taylor’s “hunch” is that:

any solution will see central government effectively taking over the oversight currently vested in councils.

So the likely result of these reforms will not be “freedom”, but a growing divide between “good” and “failing” schools, and an increase in central government control of education to fill the vacuum left by yet another erosion of local democracy.