The SEA’s fightback against academisation and the Give Us Back Our School (GUBOS)

SEA’s GUBOS Campaign

Our campaign against academisation enters its second year with just over half of all pupils now attend academies rather than Local Authority schools. Academies are independent but state-funded schools outside of council control.  Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) are groups of academies, varying in size, where each individual academy has lost its status as a legal entity and has been subsumed into the trust. According to the white paper, the Government now wants all schools to be part of a “strong trust” by 2030, or be in the process of forming, or joining one. Given current rules, this implies that remaining Local Authority maintained schools would change status, to become academies. The white paper also promises new quality standards for MATs, and a unified system of oversight and regulation.

The current model of education in the UK is now an incoherent and fragmentary ‘market’. These plans would bring all schools into a unified system, apparently even allowing local authorities to establish MATs in areas where there’s a shortage– albeit with limits on their level of involvement in trust boards. In order to understand the significance and effect of these proposals though we need to understand how school structures have changed over recent decades and how school structures fit into the neoliberal agenda. 

In the 1980s Thatcher forced compulsory competitive tendering on councils and over the last forty years governments of all persuasions bought into the idea that ‘private’ was good, ‘public’ bad. This inevitably led to, as John McDonnell said at the launch of Labours 2019 report Democratising Local Public Services: A Plan For Twenty-First Century Insourcing, “the outsourcing scandal, which has seen private companies rip off the taxpayer, degrade our public services and put people at risk whilst remaining wholly unaccountable to the people who rely on and fund these services.”  

Outsourcing has allowed employers to cut workers’ terms and conditions in the search for ready profits. But of course, the true motives of the elite were hidden, dressed up in waffle about ‘efficiency’ and ‘value for money’. In the education system the key buzzword was ‘freedom’ for schools to spend money as they saw fit. This, it was argued, would allow individual schools to better meet the needs of their pupils and target money more efficiently.  School structures have been deliberately built around the claim that schools would be forced to improve by introducing competition. Schools would be made accountable to ‘stakeholders’ with the introduction of league tables, OFSTED and “parental choice”. 

However, nothing could be further from the truth. The structures that have been put in place mean that schools are now actually less responsive to the needs of “stakeholders” and less financially efficient.

Before the 1990s the Local Education Authority (LEA) was the employer of teachers in schools and central service staff – cleaners, cooks, advisory teachers, caretakers, educational psychologists etc. Strong LEAs acting as a central service provider had some downsides for sure. Sometimes bureaucracies were entrenched and inflexible, but as experience has demonstrated the pros clearly outweighed the cons

Firstly, these arrangements encouraged fair recruitment practices and ensured that staff were suitably qualified. LEAs provided Professional Development Centres and Teachers’ Centres where staff could go for advice, meetings and training.  These created opportunities for teachers from different schools to meet and share good practice. Schools were not in competition with one another. Schools and staff from within an LEA and sometimes between LEAs worked together. Sharing practical services also had advantages. Centrally provided services were able to avoid unnecessary duplication of back office functions and economies of scale. This meant better value for the taxpayer and left school leaders more able to concentrate on the task at hand: educating children. 

But in 1988 the misleadingly named Education Reform Act (ERA) took the first steps in trashing this “cooperative” integrated education system and that agenda has been pursued by all governments since. The ERA transferred many of the powers (including some financial powers) and responsibilities from LEAs to heads and nominally governing bodies.  It also gave the option for head teachers to go further and turn the schools they manage into Grant Maintained (GM) schools. GM schools got their funding directly from central government, bypassing the Local Authority (LA) completely.  The funds given to GM schools were then deducted from LA budgets.

Head teachers were given control of school budgets and the “opportunity” to opt out of using Local Authority provided services and so the floodgates to outsourcing were opened.  Scenting profitable opportunities, a host of consultants and companies targeting the lucrative education market were ready to pounce. 

This change to the way money was provided for central services had a devastating effect on Local Authorities. Once a certain tipping point was reached, it was no longer viable to provide many school services as LAs could no longer be sure of finances year to year. Inevitably, over time central services diminished, Teachers’ Centres closed, central service staff were made redundant, years of capacity, experience and expertise lost.  This in turn made it much easier to convince schools to opt out entirely and become semi-privatised Academies and join unaccountable Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs). 

Academisation as the tip of the Tory’s iceberg

Clearly New Labour has a case to answer in terms of the decline into academisation, but what brings us to today where the academy system is merely the tip of the iceberg.

GUBOS Campaign

In light of this, in 2020 the SEA set up the GUBOS campaign.  GUBOS aims to put pressure on the Labour Party to publicly commit to the 2019 conference policy, to ensure that all schools and education central services will be renationalised and taken back under local democratic control under a Labour government. GUBOS also aims to work with unions on a publicity campaign to educate the wider public on the need to reverse privatisation in education, a plan committed to by NEU conference in April 2022, alongside the development of ‘an industrial strategy to aim to reverse deregulation enabling a return to national pay and conditions for all education workers’. 

What is to be done?

So, what else can be done?  Firstly we must campaign? institute the White paper and Schools Bill.  While this drive to move all schools into a multi academy trusts is being couched in terms like ‘strong’ and ‘fair’, we must show it up for what it actually is—a neoliberal drive for private organisations to run all of our country’s schools, overseen (or perhaps not) by the Secretary of State. It is the end of any semblance of local democracy and accountability in the school system. In the fully private education system this drive envisages, the very worst features that already exist in academies would be further amplified: nepotism, corruption, competition rather than cooperation, and a narrowing of the curriculum to maximise target-driven ‘results’ rather than providing a balanced and nurturing educational experience.

We need to lobby our elected representatives to oppose the bill and that opposition should focus on: 

  • The importance of devolving and democratising decision making rather than hugging power to the centre.  
  • Academy standards should be in line with regulations for maintained schools. 
  • The need for greater LA powers (hinted at in the white paper) over opening, closing and changing schools, admissions, exclusions and the care of vulnerable and SEND pupils. 
  • The right for schools to leave a MAT and the requirement for MATs to have local governing bodies for each school – devolving power within MATs is important. 

For those who are Labour Party members it’s important to prioritise education policy in branches and CLPs, keep the vision of a national education service (NES) alive and push the Labour leadership to commit to the 2019 Labour Party conference vote where the SEA motion calling on an incoming labour government to return schools and education services back to local democratic control was passed unanimously. 

Perhaps more importantly we need to bring to public attention the need to reverse privatisation in education in a similar way to how NHS privatisation has been publicised. We need to encourage those who are experiencing, or campaigning to solve, problems in the education system to understand the root cause of these problems and broaden out their campaigns.  It is still true that some are not really aware of all of the structural changes in the school system that has happened since the 1988 Education Act.  We need to provide a vision of how we could achieve this and demonstrate why it is essential that we change the structure of our education system.  

Some branches of the NEU (Greenwich, Liverpool, Norfolk and York) have already committed to our campaign and affiliated. All of us who are involved in Trade Unions with an interest in education could take this motion to our union branch and press our union to prioritise the GUBOS campaign. 

“This Branch of the (NEU/NASUWT/UNITE…) agrees to affiliate to the Give Us back Our Schools (GUBOS) Campaign. 

It both notes and believes that deregulation, outsourcing and the academisation program has fundamentally damaged the pay and conditions of education workers and educational experience of children. 

It asks the (NEU/NASUWT/UNITE…) to prioritise the aim of bringing all publicly funded educational services back into a co-ordinated fully funded system with proper democratic oversight as this is the key to all progressive education reform. 

While the system is so fragmented, we cannot ensure pupil centred curricula and assessment, all pupils are taught by a suitably qualified and fairly paid teacher, the needs of SEND pupils are met or guarantee that every child has a place at good local school. It is essential we bring schools and education services back into a transparent system of local democratic accountability that promotes school collaboration, and the involvement of students, parents and communities. 

The Branch, therefore, calls on the NEU/NASUWT/UNITE’s…. NEC to work with GUBOS to undertake a publicity campaign to educate the wider public on the need to reverse deregulation in education in a similar way to those organisations that have publicised NHS privatisation, and to produce literature explaining the issues including: 

  • the history of educational change since the 1988 Education Act. 
  • promote and campaign for a transparent, coordinated locally accountable education system; 
  • the strategy for change. 

Finally, this Branch requests that the NEC supports GUBOS and all other campaigns against academisation and the effects of deregulation on both our members and pupils, and in the long term develop an industrial strategy to aim to reverse deregulation enabling a return to national pay and conditions for education workers 

There is already a strong anti-academy sentiment within schools and the communities they serve. Many schools’ union groups have undertaken industrial action to prevent academisation, which is to be applauded. Some have been successful; others have not. Every academisation must be resisted but in addition this energy should now be harnessed into a national campaign to bring schools and central services back in house.  

The drive toward full academisation is nothing new. All the White Paper does is try to reanimate the corpse of an already failing policy. It is an attempt to pull together a fragmented and disorganised education system which is itself the product of the Tories’ own legislation spanning years and originating in the 1988 Education Reform Act. 

The Thatcherite education act promoted a vision of autonomous schools with powerful heads in line with the English public-school tradition. This was never the way forward. Indeed, the child Q debacle and the Holland Park bullying scandal are examples of what happens when too much unaccountable power is in the hands of one person.  Schools working together under the aegis of a democratic authority can deliver a high-quality education experience for its learners and cater for their individual needs and ambitions. This is not revolutionary. It exists in high performing jurisdictions in Canada and Finland for example. It even exists to some extent in the UK in Wales and Scotland. Local education authorities should be reinvented to include local councillors, parents, staff and stakeholders. 

Bringing all publicly funded educational services back into a coordinated system with proper democratic oversight is the key to almost all other education reforms. The proposals to totally outsource the school system must be resisted. The people cannot control what they don’t own. Give us back our schools. 

Mel Griffiths and Ian Duckett

November 2022


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s