Education featured heavily in the latest Budget delivered by Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne earlier this month.
Firstly, there was the surprising introduction of a ‘Sugar Tax’. When introduced, it will be a tax imposed on sugary drinks. In two bands, soft and sugary drinks will be taxed according to how much sugar they contain. The money raised will be for education initiatives. Although welcomed by those concerned by child obesity and increasing risks of diabetes in the young and by campaigners such as chef Jamie Oliver – the tax also attracted it’s critics. Drinks firms saw a drop in share value following the announcement, and those in business and industry are concerned that the prices of soft drinks could rise to accommodate the new tax.
Other measures in the Budget included plans to extend the school day by adding an extra hour of study, sport or extra curricula activity. Again, the response was mixed. Schools campaigners are welcoming the longer day – but some teachers have raised the issue of extra workloads for teachers and support staff. Those in education, either teachers or support staff, are already overstretched by current regular school requirements, and there are severe issues (verging on a crisis) with recruiting new teachers.
The flagship education measure introduced concerned academies. Under the Chancellor’s plans, all schools will become academies by 2020, or be committed to converting to academy status by 2022. Again, although welcomed by many – the proposal has been heavily criticised.
Teachers, education commentators and campaigners, trade unions, Jeremy Corbyn and Labour have all spoken out strongly against the academy plan. Such dissent was a feature of Mr Osborne’s latest Budget. Most of the main proposals and plans have attracted great criticism and a large number of critics – some from within the Conservative party. The biggest row came over planned alterations to disability benefits. The ensuing row saw the resignation of long-standing Work & Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith before the measure was scrapped. Consequently, Mr Osborne had to revisit his figures so that he could address an estimated £4bn gap in his financial planning which arose from from not making the same in cuts to disability benefits.
When it was debated in Parliament, heated moments and comments followed, from all sides of the green benches. In the end, Mr Osborne won a victory – but a close one. 310 MP’s approved the Budget – with 275 against it. 35 votes may be a large margin in politics – but it is a narrow margin at the same time.
Although disability benefits cuts were scaled back – the academy plan remained. Academies are state funded but are also independent of government. Academies are also directly funded and run by central government – as opposed to from local government and Local Education Authorities (LEA). Academies are run by the Head Teacher or Principle – but are overseen by a charitable trust known as an academy trust. Many trusts are part of a chain of academies; indeed, there are several chains that run the vast majority of nearly 5,000 academies nationwide. With less oversight from local government, academies have greater freedom regarding admissions and the national curriculum
Government and supporters claim that academies, with less oversight, are able to drive up standards. Critics cite the issues with many academies, and academy trust chains. Whilst supporters praise having less government oversight and control – critics fear that such decreased oversight will actually lower standards. Teachers have concerns over terms and conditions, and those in education fear that education might become commercialised. With no need to slavishly teach the National Curriculum – the scope for subjects to be taught for corporate agendas or needs is only too great. However, many greatly enjoy the independence and freedom that academy status brings. Although inspected by Ofsted to the same standard, academy schools considered outstanding are not subject to routine inspections.
It must be noted that these changes only apply in England. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, education policy is devolved, with differing results in policies and implementation, and academies do not exist.
All those regions have gained greater powers, autonomy and greater freedom from central government in London over the last two decades. In keeping with that theme of greater independence – schools have now gained similar independence.
Last year saw the Independence Referendum in Scotland. Chancellor George Osborne and others have long championed a Northern Powerhouse with greater local powers and freedoms. More regions and cities either have, or will be getting, locally elected Mayor’s (or similar) with increased powers and autonomy. Constrained less by central government,those authories will also have greater finanacial powers. Power is seemingly returning to the regions.
It was mostly under the Labour Government led by Tony Blair that power and control was increasingly centralised in Westminster. Central government had greater control of local and regional matters, authories and finances. Ironically, it was also under the Labour government that Scotland and Wales saw their respective devolved powers and Parliaments.
Under the Conservative government of David Cameron, power has seemingly returned to the regions and local cities. Under there recent Coalition, at times it seemed that Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg favoured even more powers for local authorities, or indeed further regional devolution. Indeed, at times public opinion was greatly in favour of greater regional devolution. Together, both leaders presided over a seeming reversal of where the national centre of power was.
With these drastic reforms to education, it is evident that this reversal is not limited to geographical regions or cities. Infrastructure, for example, has seen a comparable ‘devolution’. HS2, Crossrail and similar projects have seen great involvement from local authorities, although overseen by central government. Humber and Hull have seen regeneration plans for their respective dockyards and coastal areas, mostly due to regional influences. Plans for future high speed rails link between Leeds and Manchester are similarly overseen by central government – but with great local involvement.
Greater freedom and autonomy comes in various forms. Whilst being a major Opposition party in Westminster, the SNP still pursues agendas and policies of increased autonomy and freedom from England, for example. The greatest freedom of all, though, derives from being a sovereign, independent entity, free from external control.
Since the Referendum of 1975 that saw the UK integrate with the (then) European Communities, the UK has been part of a greater entity itself – the European Union. Freedom, autonomy and independence across the board have been sacrificed and fallen by the way for the sake of being part of a greater Union across Europe. In June, the British people will get the choice whether to maintain the status quo – or to be an independent nation again.
Government in Whitehall has been seemingly reversing a system of centralised government in favour of greater control and freedoms for local areas and interests. The EU institutions have gone the opposite way, with more powers being handed over to Brussels. In June, the British people get the choice; local and regional freedom, power and autonomy, or central control.
By 2022, all schools will be academies, with greater freedom from the constraints of the national curriculum. What will those future academies be teaching in future years regarding the EU Referendum of 2016? That the British people chose centralised control – or greater freedom?