Chris Bambery: Why George Osborne's academies plan should concern you

Writer and author Chris Bambery warns against allowing changes in the education system in England to have a knock-on effect in Scotland

WHY should people in Scotland be concerned by George Osborne's announcement, in his Budget speech last month, that all state schools in England must become academies by 2020?

If anyone has paid any attention to what's befallen schools south of the border, the temptation must be to mutter, "there but for the grace of God go I", and move on. But that would be a mistake.

For a start, the semi-privatisation of English schools, for that's what it is, will cost British taxpayers. Secondly, it will have a knock on effect. Take the Trans Atlantic Trade Investment Partnership (TTIP), being negotiated secretly between the EU and the USA. We know that it will open up public services like the health service to private tender.

If anyone has paid any attention to what's befallen schools south of the border, the temptation must be to mutter, "there but for the grace of God go I", and move on. But that would be a mistake.

The Scottish Government has said it will use its power to exempt the NHS, but it hasn't said that about education. Across the border private outfits, which increasingly run English primary and secondary schools, and will run them all by 2020, will be greedily eyeing being able to bid to run education provision in Scotland.

Secondly, in January Nicola Sturgeon announced the introduction of standardised testing in Scotland's schools, focusing on the 'three R's' (writing, reading and arithmetic). It doesn't sound a big deal but the school testing regime down south, extending into nurseries, has led to a narrow curriculum and pupils having to go through endless tests. Teachers sweat over the results rather than the development of children.

From my experience as a parent governor in inner London Ofsted, the body charged with inspecting and regulating English schools, is concerned with school attendance, the three R's and little else.

Thirdly, the transfer of English schools to academies will be a massive blow to the National Union of Teachers. The NUT is one of the strongest trade unions around and is loathed in Westminster. Each academy or chain of academies negotiates pay and conditions rather than at a national level, making the NUT's job far more difficult.

Across the border private outfits, which increasingly run English primary and secondary schools, and will run them all by 2020, will be greedily eyeing being able to bid to run education provision in Scotland.

Already, schools which have become academies have lower union membership. Out of basic solidarity we should defend the NUT, which is balloting over strike action to oppose Osborne's move. But they are also natural allies of those fighting for welfare, against austerity and over issues like Palestine, where the union takes a strong stand.

Inevitably as teachers' pay and conditions are eroded in England this will add pressure on their Scottish counterparts.

Fourthly, for those of us who supported independence, what's happening to schools in England is one good reason for escaping the United Kingdom. Academies were the brainchild of New Labour, back in the day, but Michael Gove, when Tory education secretary, gave the go ahead to free schools, which can be set up by just about anyone, and are seen by the rightwing as a way of getting grammar schools through the back door.

So what are academies? Up until now schools in England have become academies either because their governors voted to cut themselves free of the local authority, or the school was found to be 'failed' by Ofsted. That automatically leads to a school being made an academy.

The transfer of English schools to academies will be a massive blow to the National Union of Teachers. The NUT is one of the strongest trade unions around and is loathed in Westminster.

Those that run academies range from large academy chains, universities, secondary and primary schools, grammar schools, further education institutions, dioceses, businesses and individual 'philanthropists'.

Under the new Tory plan, the transfer of all state schools to academies would entail taking publicly owned assets and wads of public money, and handing them over to private sponsors. These sponsors are given the school, building and all, and receive the entire school budget directly from the government. Local democracy is eliminated because local authorities no longer have any control over these schools.

There is a growing number of investment firms, looking for high returns, at a time when interest rates are low or zero, who are queuing up to invest in running academies.

In a fascinating article examining just who runs academies, Matthew Bennett points out: "The minister responsible for school governance is Lord Nash , the parliamentary under secretary of state for schools. He and his wife Caroline, a former stockbroker, in 2006 set up Future Academies, which runs a small chain of schools in Westminster.

For those of us who supported independence, what's happening to schools in England is one good reason for escaping the United Kingdom.

" The trust's board has seven members, including Lord and Lady Nash. There are no parent trustees. The couple are also co-chairs of the board of governors of Pimlico Academy, the chain's flagship school. Of the five other governors, three are also on the Future Academies board; there is only one parent governor."

Bennett goes on to examine Lord Nash's career prior to becoming a minister: "Lord Nash is a former chairman of the British Venture Capital Association, and a co-founder of Sovereign Capital, a private equity firm with interests in education and healthcare.

"He was chairman of the private health and social care provider Care UK until 2010, when he joined the 'red team' of bankers and financiers helping Osborne to 'think innovatively about the options for reducing public expenditure', before moving on to the DfE's board of non-executive directors (Agnew joined the board at the same time).

"Ennobled in 2013, Nash stepped down as chairman of Sovereign Capital and became a minister. He and his wife are substantial donors to the Conservatives, having given the party almost PS300,000 between 2006 and 2013." - Matthew Bennett, The Schools Business, London Review of Books, 25 March 2016

One would never accuse Westminster of corruption but there is a rather nasty stench round this. Academies do not need to have parent governors, and will no longer have local authority ones, so another element of democracy is removed from public life.

They, and free schools, are exempt from having to provide the healthy school meal programme introduced to combat obesity. Above all there is no evidence that academies outperform state schools.

There is a rather nasty stench round this. Academies do not need to have parent governors, and will no longer have local authority ones, so another element of democracy is removed from public life.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn hit the nail on the head when he said: "This is a top down re-organisation, costing over PS1bn - without a shred of evidence that academies improve standards - that teachers, governors and parents do not want."

Returning to why you should be concerned, the fact is we live in a Europe where there is a constant 'race to the bottom as to which state has the poorest welfare provision, lowest corporate taxes, worst health and safety and so on.

The destruction of comprehensive education in England should concern folk in Scotland, and ensure that it does not extend north of the border.

The CommonSpace opinion section is an open platform for anyone who wants to voice their views and does not represent the editorial position of CommonSpace itself. If you'd like to have a piece published, email CommonSpace editor Angela Haggerty at angela@common.scot

Picture courtesy of alamosbasement