Much has changed in the world of education since the Coalition government came to power in May 2010. These past four years have seen the systematic fragmentation, undermining and privatisation of our schools.
Privatisation of education
The biggest change was Michael Gove effectively ending the era of new state schools, by stripping local councils of the power and funding to commission and open new schools under local authority control. All new schools must be academies or free schools.
Free schools and academies set their own curricula, determined by the interest groups involved in the management and funding of the school. This could see everything from creationism to explicitly misogynistic views of women being taught to our children. They are also able to set their own admissions criteria, which could result in more able students being cherry-picked, potentially driving down neighbouring state schools' results. Should state schools be classed as 'failing', this opens the door for forced academy conversion by Gove's Department for Education.
There are other practical local problems too. When providing school places, councils plan and prepare carefully to ensure the required number of places across their areas are met. With specialist schools able to open wherever they choose, this task is made much more difficult, especially as these schools don't have to notify the local authority of their planned location. This could also have untold knock-on effects for parents and children applying to schools in the area. And for every academy or free school that opens in an area, local councils lose funding to provide support and services for all other schools.
In preventing local authorities from providing new places, Gove is shamelessly holding our children's education hostage in order to usher in his privatisation programme.
Providing good-quality local school places
It's an understatement to say that this is a challenging context in which to be making decisions about school
places. For example, here in Brighton & Hove, previous Conservative and Labour administrations did little to provide more places, despite knowing that more would be needed. This helped to prepare the ground for the establishment of private school places.
However, elected councillors and officials have a legal duty of care to all children in their area to provide school places as best as possible. That includes co-operating with all private groups who have been approved by the government to set up or run schools. While councils have no power over what they choose to do, here in Brighton & Hove, we've asked all free schools and academies to use our central admissions system and to sign up to teachers' agreed national pay and conditions.?
As in many other areas across the country, the groups setting up schools don't have the oversight to make sure that the right kind of places are being provided in the areas of need. So, in the absence of free schools and academies stepping up to meet the need for school places in Brighton & Hove, our focus has been on supporting and expanding successful council-maintained schools. We set up a secondary schools commission to look at improving education, and a learning partnership to pool the knowledge and expertise in all our schools.
And we've created many hundreds of new places by building new classrooms. Expansion is far from a perfect solution, but given the shortage of land in our city on which to build a brand new school, and the government's determination to take education from council hands, this is the best option available to us.
Smear campaign against the teaching profession
As well as the march of free schools and academies, we've also seen a systematic assault on the teaching profession spear-headed by Gove, whether it's allowing unqualified people to 'teach', or introducing untested performance-related pay, wage freezes or pension changes.
Teachers are already putting in up to 56 hours a week or more preparing for and teaching our children, while dealing with bureaucracy and meeting targets. The last thing our education system needs is the Secretary of State for Education openly undermining the incredibly hard-working teachers who keep it going. It's especially galling when Gove, like many of his cabinet colleagues, has had little or no experience of the state school system.
Protecting teachers' and parents' rights
In Brighton & Hove, Green councillors have supported parents and teachers fighting back against these assaults. Over the past few years, we've supported teachers taking industrial action, and supported community campaigns against the government's attempted land grab of well-used school playing fields to hand over for free to a free school.
Currently, we're supporting an ongoing parent-led campaign against a local school voluntarily converting to an academy. The school previously declined to hold a parental ballot as it is not legally obliged to - so the Green administration has proposed a council-run ballot of parents, to ensure they have an opportunity to feedback on this crucial and irreversible decision.
The Coalition government removed so-called 'pay portability' for teachers - the guarantee that if they take a similar job in another school, they'll receive the same pay. This means every time teachers move jobs, they have to negotiate from scratch. As the NUT points out, teachers on career breaks will be hit hardest of all as they try to re-enter teaching - and these would be mostly women returning after maternity leave.
The Brighton & Hove Green administration has maintained pay portability for teachers in council-run schools, ensuring they continue to receive a salary appropriate to their experience.
It's difficult to be optimistic about the future of our education system - especially when the Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems are all singing from the same hymn sheet. All three main parties support the ongoing fragmentation and privatisation of our schools - in addition to wider austerity ideology.
But with half of new primary schools failing to fill their places at the same time as there's a growing national crisis over shortages in other areas, and as brilliant teachers leave the profession in droves - arguably the tide of opinion is turning.
Though councils' hands are very much tied by national government legislation, our experience in Brighton & Hove is that by working with teachers, parents and unions, it is possible to win the campaign against privatisation of education.
Councillor Sue Shanks is Lead Member for Children's Services, Brighton & Hove City Council
A teacher's perspective
by Lisa Murray,Chair of Brighton & Hove Green Party
I'm a young teacher, and I really love my job. However, this year as a NUT rep, I encouraged my colleagues to go out on strike because I'd be letting the kids I've yet to teach down if I didn't. As well as fast-tracking the privatisation of education (that started under Labour), Gove has repeatedly attacked teachers and their professionalism. Teachers no longer have to have teaching qualifications, they will be teaching until at least 68, have on average 60+ hour weeks, and their pay has fallen by 15 per cent. No wonder 50 per cent of teachers leave in their first five years. This doesn't build a high-quality profession, but instead is simply a way for the Tories to make teaching a cheaper profession so others can make a profit from it. The Green Party education policy is the only one that opposes these reforms and rejects a market-driven education system centred on inequality. Instead, our policy puts the whole child back at the centre of the education system, and we are the only party standing up for teachers.