Good evening and welcome to tonight's live-blogging extravaganza. First up we have Chris Cook of the Financial Times (owned of course by Pearson, a big name in private educational services), then Lord Andrew Adonis on the joys of Academy schooling, a policy he masterminded under New Labour, before the Tories ran with it. As you know, I'm not a partisan chap, but I can't help thinking that anything the Tories like is likely to have a maggot nestling in its apparently firm, sweet flesh.
Academies, as you may know, take schools away from the democratic and strategic management of an elected council and give it to a 'sponsor' who may be anyone other than (perhaps) Jimmy Savile. The relaunched schools get a big chunk of cash. They're given a get out of jail free card exempting them from Freedom of Information, teacher qualifications and even things like minimum food standards. There are no more parent or staff governors. Headteachers are left to negotiate everything from toilet roll supplies to legal services. The result is dependency on consultants and profit-making suppliers. The end result is privatisation.
This is deregulation: the concept which has worked so very well in banking, health and pensioner care…
In essence, Academy Schools are the educational equivalent of New Labour and its Tory successors. Instead of the collective wisdom embodied in responsive democracy, schools are run by a Great Leader: you can see the attraction to Blair, who continually presented himself as a visionary held back by bureaucracy and the reactionary mob. Likewise Lord Adonis. He's never been elected to anything. Precisely the opposite: he has a voice and a vote in the legislature for the rest of his life without the electorate ever getting to pass judgement on whether his public presence is welcome. Without wanting to get too personal, it's tempting to diagnose a Messianic tendency in anyone named after a God… Their successors Cameron, Gove, Pickles et al. have a similarly Messianic ideology. They aren't democrats, they're meritocrats - by which they mean that those who shoulder their way through in any one field must per se be experts in whatever they turn their hands to.
So we get Academies: sealed off from parental, staff, student and social oversight or critique. They spend huge amounts of money on PR, on casting around for convenient qualifications and exam regimes. They exclude messy students, either officially or structurally. They offer 'choice': the magic word for consumerist parents with the time, money and mortgage credit to play the game – and the rest are left to fend for themselves. This is how private schools succeed: they ruthlessly pick and choose their intake and pour money into tiny classes and social cachet. Bingo!
So that's the scene set. I'll update as the evening unfurls. A moment of disclosure: my employer is the sponsor of three schools.
So here I am. About to challenge this discourse while surrounded by everyone who can sack me: Vice-Chancellor, Executive members, the lot. Oh, and Paul Uppal MP, who shot me a fairly contemptuous look. Perhaps he's read the previous entry on Vole!
Well well, Adonis got his break from a council grant to go to a boarding school. So I think we can discern his ideological landscape…
Praising investment - not something for which an undemocratic change in status is required. Now scaring us with talk of Chinese graduates. I miss the days when the left was internationalist.
What's the next stage? Picks up on the contribution 'business' can make. As though giving every school an Alan Sugar is the answer. Every school needs 'Strong Leaders'. BINGO! Sadly unlike Benito, head teacher-leaders don't end up swinging from lamp-posts. They get pay-offs.
'Strong school leadership is at the heart of every educational system… I mean headteachers, managers and governors'. Academies don't have elected governors: this seems to be his major innovation. It's a self-appointed oligarchy. Goes through school leadership training system - all quite impressive. 'The principle of academies is to invest in schools with weak governance to produce dramatic improvement'. Makes call for other universities to sponsor academies - but no mention of the usual type of sponsor: fundamentalist carpet salesmen like Lord Harris, or of democracy. Then he harps on about 'businesses' as though their abilities are unquestionable.
'Teachers: more of them and better trained': higher pay for teachers helps. Adonis says he supports variable pay for teachers, which I think is desperate. Shame the government has just announced it's going to end this. Praises SE Asian and Scandinavian queues for teaching jobs. Doesn't mention that you need an MA to be a kindergarten teacher in Finland: Adonis supports Teach First, which doesn't require any qualification. You don't need one to work at an Academy.
Curriculum: need to strengthen the technical route and make apprenticeships available en masse. I totally agree. In Germany, you're not considered dumb if you attend a Technical Hochschule. Here, you really are. He's making a good case for better curricula and more care for a wider range of students. But none at all about why academies are equipped for this at all.
Adonis criticises Gove's obsession with GCSEs and calls for new, better technical qualifications for 18-year olds. Then appeals to businesses to make apprenticeships available and attractive. Points out how few businesses do provide them, or employ people under 21. He's absolutely right. Also points out that the Dept for Business, Industry and Skills has only 11 apprentices, 1 under 21. He appeals for businesses to become more community-minded and interventionist… which is all very well, except that lots of businesses are parasitic vampire squid like Starbucks and Amazon rather than cuddly local co-operatives.
He's winding up. Some soap for the local big-wigs. The big surprise is that there isn't a single word about academies. And here's a nasty little sting in the tale. The compere has a list of pre-submitted questions, and lots of the audience wasn't invited to take part. Now that's what I call event management! It looks like a debate - but it's a love in.
First question: how do we get our kids 'work-ready'? (CEO of the city council)
Adonis: more work placements. Better key skills.
Cook (FT man): schools run in collaboration businesses teaching project-based curricula [UTCs - which this university already sponsors].
Lord Bilston (Dennis Turner, ex-Labour MP). How does Labour's 'one nation' theme equate with competitive schools freed from lots of legal requirements especially the National Curriculum?
Adonis: Competition should be competition to drive up standards through strong management, local collaboration and community engagement, partnership working. But formal oversight is denied to local authorities and parents. 'Going round the local Academy, the school is transformed and it's not just about money but about leadership and not passing the buck'. I want to see competition between schools.
Bilston: 'And the role of local government?'
Adonis: 'Yes. They have a central role to play in stimulating and encouraging apprenticeships'.
Some of us: 'But not in running schools.
?: How do you feel about Academies being free to employ unqualified teachers?
Adonis: I don't generally agree.
Ken Purchase (former Labour MP): The use of statistics is dubious. A deeper cultural and historical understanding is required to parse what you've been saying. I resent the underlying criticism that teachers shouldn't accept 'second-best'. I've not met a teacher in 40 years who accepts second-best. Continual attacks on teachers is demoralising and damaging. Don't use the German example - it lead to the Nazis [oh dear]. The Sutton Trust report highlights inequality between state schools. Do you agree that non-community schools (Academies, religious schools) accelerates inequality through competition and gaming the system?
Adonis: I agree with some of that. You must seek to 'move forward'. I accept that teachers don't want to do a bad job, but standards were very poor in places. Nobody wants to go back to that. We should be proud and believe we can improve things, and we can learn from abroad. If we look inwards and backwards, we have no future. 'Let's not have an arid debate about mechanisms'.
And that's the end! No time for questions from the floor. I found that quite enlightening, though Adonis's call to avoid talking about mechanisms was a deft bit of evasiveness: the mechanisms are ideological and have the greatest impact. We can all agree that we want schools to get better, but by talking about airy generalities, he escaped any scrutiny. For instance, the language of 'community engagement' is something that Norman Fairclough and the Critical Discourse Analysis folks would really get their teeth into. It sounds nice, but it's a polite way of saying that these SuperHeads can do what they want. Meaningful, i.e. statutory or legal representation and direction by councils, parents and students is exactly what the Academies are founded to escape. How do we question the sponsors, or replace them? Answer: you can't. Similarly, we couldn't talk about what actually happens in schools: the little dodges, the tricks, the consultancies, the covert selection and exclusion: instead we got nice idealistic phrases with which nobody can disagree.
I wish Ken Purchase had stayed sane. His question started off reasonably and I was nodding along. Then he broke Godwin's Law by mentioning the Nazis and the anti-academy case is once again associated with lunacy and xenophobia. It was like a fart at a funeral. Except not as funny.
And while we're on the subject, 'debate' means, or so I thought, free and open discussion: not a magic circle of special people invited to propose a question in advance.
Hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. Goodnight.