Some thoughts of an academy school worker in England.
I’ve recently taught in an academy school for over two years, and in that time I saw a lot of things that have angered me as a worker and as someone who values education, and made even more apparent to me the need for a radical overhaul in education that can only be achieved by revolutionary change in society as a whole.
Schools as business and the business of schooling.
The school is run by a large multinational company, and its presence in the school is well-felt. We had representatives address staff meetings and talk about their ‘visions’ for the school. We had a fancy looking building, great computer suites and lovely music facilities. Much was made of our students and parents as ‘customers’ and how we need to give them the ‘service they deserve’. The pupils know the sponsor name; volunteers come in from the company to work with the pupils. It’s perfect PR for the sponsor company – ‘look at this fantastic community work we do, giving an education to these poor kids’. It’s ‘community outreach’ or ‘putting something back o the community’… something like that.
The flip side is that in some subjects we didn’t have GCSE textbooks because we couldn’t afford them. We didn’t have enough classrooms for when the school grows. We counted every last piece of equipment in and out, cos we couldn’t afford to replace rulers and markers. ‘You know what the budget’s like’. And we’ve class sizes of over 30 in some GCSE subjects, frankly appalling. The Trojan horse of the fancy building and uniform betrays a real lack of resources, a strapped budget, and massive class sizes, which are projected to increase in the next few years.
At the end of the day, it’s a business. And pennies have to be saved somewhere, hitting frontline staff and students the most.
We had unions; NUT, NASUWT, Unison. They have members. None are recognised, and the staff I'm still in touch with say they're not likely to be soon given the almost total lack of a culture of dissent, or even awareness of advancing workers interests. No recognition of national agreements on pay & conditions and we’d no real consultation over such issues.
There have been a few isolated, individual grievances and the like; atomised and easy for management to deal with without too much fuss. There’s potential for organising and some small gains were won, such as keeping a member of support staff from getting the sack after a solidarity campaign and pushing the school to be the only academy in the borough closed on June 30th last year. But the struggle to organise is proving to be a long one, but not impossible. There are many structural barriers:
- Non-recognition of unions – no facility time for reps and no consultation over changes to conditions etc
- Staggered lunchtimes – no chance for staff to have lunchtime meetings.
- Compulsory after-school clubs and meetings – difficulty meeting and placing strain on admin duties.
We worked LONG hours, longer than I remember any of my teachers working. It’s common for the photocopy room to be busy at 6pm, really. We ignored national assessment practices (such as ‘opting-in’ to SATs despite them having been abolished at key-stage 3) and we had extended school days through compulsory after-school clubs for all teaching staff. Academies expect staff to stay much longer than ‘normal’ schools, and if people don’t do it they aren’t ‘committed’ to the ‘team’. We have 24/7 access to the building, so the expectation is there that ALL the work gets done, on time.
In my experience, this has a depressing effect on any sort of dissent in the workplace. Many of the staff are union members on paper, simply for ‘protection’, and our union almost never meets. This is perfect for management – they have also intentionally employed a very young, naïve, and ‘flexible’ workforce – one that is unaware of even basic rights and standard practices, who have very little experience of a different model of education, and who are unlikely to have the ‘burden’ of outside responsibilities like children or spouses.
The culture of the staffroom was odd. No one seemed to have a ‘meta-critique’ of education, and it’s unusual to hear anyone question the policies we enact in our school. The staffroom culture is definitely not one of dissent, which made organising all the harder, but not impossible.
What I did notice is that the demographic of teaching staff has changed dramatically. Not only has the school had a very high turnover of teaching staff, but most of the staff are under 30, most have only been teaching for 2-3 years or so. Even the heads of departments have probably on average been teaching for 4-5 years. This made for an incredibly inexperienced workforce which is beneficial to management for two reasons:
1 – total naivety: inexperienced teachers are unlikely to ‘know any better’ and will assume that our practices, from class-size to assessment measures are ‘normal’ and ‘how it’s done everywhere’. They are also less likely to have been involved in workplace disputes elsewhere.
2 – less outside responsibilities: No families, no kids, no things that can stop them staying til 6pm every day to make sure that last bit of marking and data-entry gets done. The few staff that do have kids have faced serious childcare issues and dirty looks for daring to leave a meeting early to pick up their kids!
The relative inexperience and young age of our managers meant they were a bureaucratic authoritarian nightmare. Their ‘authority’ is not based on years of classroom experience in their respective subjects, which would at least make some sort of sense within the logic of education, but on a willingness to say ‘yes’ to senior managers and to implement uncritically every whimsical change in policy and practice, parroting management jargon and viewing our pupils as ‘customers’, which only makes sense within the logic of business. I didn’t even take them seriously in meetings, but they made working life tough.
Compounding this is the growth of the Teach First* initiative, read: people who couldn’t care less about education but are doing us all a ‘favour’ by lending schools their ‘high-flyer’ brains for a few years before they jump ship to management or consultant jobs. These people are the least critical teachers I have ever met. They parrot every single thing management says, have little-to-no philosophy of education, and will not be ‘normal’ classroom teachers for longer than 2-3 years. Most I’ve met are aspiring managers and are looking to climb the ladder and get out of the classroom as quickly as possible.
The most daunting aspect is that my school was a model for what Michael Gove wants. I’d urge workers in any school that is being touted as a future academy to stand up now. However bad your school is, whatever issues you have now, they will be compounded by becoming an academy, do whatever you can to oppose it. Recently schools in London, Birmingham and elsewhere have been fighting academy coversions, Downhills, Montgomery, Bournville and others, with mixed results have been organisaing workers, students and parents to fight this bullying privatisation of education. That sort of thing is a start, but it will involved serious collective action between education workers and their communities, revealing academies for the Trojan horses that they are.
I love my subject, and I really value education for its own sake, but I want to work in a school genuinely run BY and FOR the community it is supposed to serve. As it is, even in a non-academy school now, I feel like I am barely teaching. It feels like service-delivery, like working in the bottom-rung of a two-tier education system - merely equipping students with generic skills that they can use in whatever demeaning, unfulfilling job they get, assuming they get one. With over a million people expected to face job cuts in the next few years and the possibility of 9k per year university fees, many of the pupils I teach will be unable to afford university. I do worry about their futures, and I’m conscious that I’m a part of that.
Some of my students went on a lesson-strike for an hour during the school walkouts, that was a brief glimmer of inspiration. Me and my workmates could have learned a lot from them.
* Teach First is a charity that takes ‘high flyers’ and trains them ‘on the job’ to be teachers. Teachers trained this way complete minimal pedagogical/theoretical training and are expected to become a lot more common in schools according to the November 2010 White Paper on education, effectively removing any academic pretense in teaching.