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The Perfect Storm: UK Austerity Measures and Reforms Undermine Educational Equality Service

‘Academy schools’ policy reduces equality

The limiting of educational equality by cuts to national budget and educational support projects is further compounded by misguided educational reform.

The rapid expansion of existing Academy schools - already to over 1,500 in England, representing c.6% of schools - forms the cornerstone of the government’s ongoing policy of education reform.

This Academy policy represents a three-fold threat to equal access to quality education.

Firstly, by creating a hierarchical, two-tier system. Although the government has invited all primary and secondary schools to convert to Academy status, they are prioritising those judged by education inspectors OFSTED to be “performing well” or “outstanding”. This will lead to a minority of schools in often more privileged neighbourhoods disproportionally sucking in experienced teachers thorough better conditions and resources. Schools maining under local authority control will be left by default in a ‘second tier’.

Secondly, by a hidden agenda of selection. The Teachers’ Union NASUWT highlight: “Academies set their own admission policies. Whilst they cannot yet choose intake, there is already some evidence these are non-representative of their local community.”

Finally, in terms of indirect costs to parents. Academies are not currently allowed to charge direct fees to pupils’ families. However, costs are expected through academies introducing e.g. new school uniforms or charges for certain activities and resources.

Recent research by the NASUWT shows there is no evidence that ‘Academy school’ status raises standards. In fact, it actually shows they have no better record of educational achievement than any other type of school with some in fact performing far worse.

Academy schools therefore place barriers to quality education for pupils from lower-income backgrounds based on a divisive system, hidden selection and possible extra indirect costs to parents with no demonstrable improvement in quality of education.

They mark the third and final element of the ‘perfect storm’: an avoidable, unacceptable regression to an elitist and unfair multi-tier education system.

The storm is already here.

Education unions’ members need to be more united than ever - with one clear voice - to resist it. Only in this way can we ensure a fair and equally accessible education system not only for our current but also future generations.

Targeted Cuts further reduce opportunities

As these national budget cuts begin to negatively impact education, a range of specific projects designed to support those most in need are also under threat (table 2).

Sacrificed on the altar of austerity, the reduction or removal of these projects clearly hits the most disadvantaged pupils the hardest, as illustrated by the case of The Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA). In 2011, 76% of the lowest-achieving 16-year olds continuing in education benefitted from EMA grants.

Significantly, ring-fencing or protection of funding for many projects has been removed. Now, instead of being provided directly from central government to individual schools, this money is being passed into schools’ general budgets via local education authorities. Consequently, these vital projects face being severely reduced or even scrapped as head teachers struggle with wider budget cuts.

A recent Guardian newspaper survey of school heads highlighted c.6% of schools had already ended or reduced the ‘Every Child a Reader’ scheme. The scheme’s national leader, Julia Douetil of the London Institute of Education, estimates c.30% less pupils will follow scheme in 2011 12 than in 2010-11.

The Secretary of State for Education in the UK, Michael Gove, claimed in late 2011: “I can confirm that I am able to protect frontline spending on schools, children’s centres and 16-19 provision this year”.
In stark contrast, according to the report Trends in Education and Schools Spending from the Institute for Fiscal Studies published in October 2011, UK Education spending will drop by 14.4% between 2010/11 and 2014/15. Alarmingly, this represents the largest like-for-like fall since the 1950s (table 1).

A parallel study from the Universities and College Union (UCU) estimates cuts to higher education coupled with the government recently tripling university fees to a maximum of £9,000 per year will significantly affect fair access to university education. It predicts students will be forced to directly contribute 47.2% of university funding through tuition fees by 2013/2014. This imposes the highest financial burden on students since the 1890s.

New statistics published by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) show a 7.6% decrease in the number of UK-born students applying for university places for 2012. Unsurprisingly, students from lower-income backgrounds are disproportionately affected.

The negative effect of these cuts on equal access to quality education has been widely condemned. Christine Blower, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, explained: “First class education requires proper investment. Cutting funding per pupil is a betrayal of the futures of our children and young people”.

Echoing this sentiment, UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt warned: “The scale of the cuts is unprecedented and will have an undeniable impact on students”.