The Great City Academy Fraud

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Francis Beckett, Continuum, £16.99

Back in the mid-1960s as a young teenager, I remember Paul McCartney being described in a newspaper as the "Brainy Beatle" because he had five O levels.

Today, with around 60 percent of students taking their GCSEs at least matching McCartney's achievements by obtaining five A-C grades or better, this accolade seems (as well as being unjust to John Lennon) a little exaggerated.

But back in 1962, the year the Beatles first made the charts, only 16 percent managed to get the magic five passes then usually required to progress to the sixth form and A levels, to get a white collar job with prospects or at least on to a higher level apprenticeship.

Most of these would have been among the 20 percent who were selected by the 11 plus exam for grammar schools while most of other 80 percent were siphoned off into poorly resourced secondary moderns and destined to leave school four or five years later with no qualifications at all.

I refer to Paul McCartney and his O levels not because I was a great Beatles fan but because it highlights vividly the truly amazing achievements of what Alastair Campbell once called the bog-standard comprehensive school.

In 1965, after years of campaigning by left wing teachers, parents and education activists, Harold Wilson's Labour government extended comprehensive schooling, until then restricted to a handful of local authorities, across the country.

Despite its limitations (public schools were left untouched, grammar schools survived under a few Tory councils, and some schools continued to be streamed), comprehensive education was, as we have seen, a great success, not least due to the enthusiasm of thousands of teachers determined to develop curricula and adopt teaching methods which would allow all children - and not just a privileged minority - to develop their potential.

However, by 1976 the post-war economic boom was over. In October of that year, following a frenzy of criticism of "progressive" education by employers and the right wing press, the new Labour prime minister James Callaghan made a speech which began the attack on comprehensive education and educational equality which was taken up and intensified by Margaret Thatcher and is still continuing today under New Labour.

A report drawn up for Callaghan prior to making his speech complained that "some teachers and some schools may have overemphasised the importance of preparing boys and girls for their roles in society compared to the need to prepare them for their economic role."

This devastating new book has done a great service to all of us who are intent on defending and extending comprehensive state education, by exposing the right wing pedigree, corruption and educational vandalism of one central aspect of the drive by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to force schools to prepare children more closely for their economic roles under capitalism: city academies.

These "state-funded independent schools", as Beckett explains in vivid detail, are completely unaccountable democratically to the local community - their private sponsors can appoint the majority of school governors, vary the curriculum and determine staff pay and conditions.

They are also a massive threat to neighbouring schools as they threaten to create a "two-tier" system of schooling in which working class children will inevitably be the main losers.

Beckett shows conclusively that academies, like so many other features of New Labour's education policy, have their roots in innovations originally formulated by the Tories. The Times Educational Supplement describes academies in a recent article on Blair's legacy as "beefed-up versions of the city technology colleges first introduced under Margaret Thatcher".

He also suggests some interesting alternative ways in which a genuinely comprehensive and democratic system of schooling could be organised once we have defeated the New Labour and Tory neoliberal offensive. These ideas contribute to the debate about what kind of education we need for liberation.

Just as important, he describes some of the important local campaigns that have already taken place against academies and begins to draw out lessons for the battles ahead.

In writing The Great City Academy Fraud, Francis Beckett has provided an invaluable weapon for our side to use in these battles, and for doing this he certainly deserves our thanks.


Francis Beckett writes on city academies in this issue