Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

The State of State Education

February 27, 2010 · 2 Comments

In August 2009, Earlham High School in Norwich shut its doors. At the start of September 2009, those doors reopened, but this time onto the City Academy Norwich, the replacement for the former high school. Months prior to the transition, members of the community were sent the proposal for a new academy and the expedited process that would take place before the transition’s completion. They were told that Earlham High School was considered for the transition because of low test scores and poor reports from Ofsted, the national organization responsible for investigating the performance of England’s schools. Over the last six months, the City Academy Norwich seems to have functioned just as every other school academy in the country. It remains sponsored and assisted by several organizations in Norwich, including the University of East Anglia. The transition may be too soon to yield any tangible improvements, but the overhaul plans to reinvigorate what was a struggling institution.

This type of transition has occurred in many other parts of England. When did this process start? What is its impact? Is this the right way to achieve success in state schools? The debate on privatization in schools encompasses many nuances and uses several definitions. Moreover, it is the subject of my research for this project.

The history of privatization in England’s state schools traces back to the 1850s when a state system of education first began to emerge. Fast-forwarding to the end of the Second World War in 1945 (yes, it is quite a leap, but a necessary one, unless this post becomes another research paper) the roots of the current education system became much clearer under the Labour government under Prime Minister Clement Atlee. It was during post-war reconstruction that the state began to provide free secondary education. Also, the different tracks on which students could learn were solidified, including grammar schools (for white-collar professions) and modern schools (for more manual, vocational professions). Selective education (run by a “survival of the fittest” mentality) became prevalent in England and defended by many. It raised issues of equality, but the rise of selective education encouraged privately-funded schools. By the 1970s, schools not receiving public funding and under private control began to increase in number. This occurred amidst attempts by the government to implement more democratic measures into the state education. Its efforts could not stop the already falling educational standards from further decline.

The 1980s saw an increased use of big businesses to run state education in what resembled a relatively free market economy. Enterprise, self-reliance, and competition remained key components of educational legislation under the Tories and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Since the 1980s, state education has shifted again, but it remains pointed in the general direction of privatization. Schools are encouraged to collaborate with one another, and private organization (often non-profit) are called upon to improve the efficiency and success of schools. While many of these organizations align themselves with struggling schools like Earlham High School, this process seems to be popular across the country, especially within the last decade under the New Labour government.

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My project combines research and investigation  into what I have seen as a very contentious and complicated issue in state education. I will research the history of privatization in England’s state education from the 1970s onwards, with a particular focus on how it has effected Norwich and Norfolk.

I then plan to answer several questions surrounding the debate on the issue:

  • The benefits of private organizations in state education include improved efficiency, but at what costs?
  • To what extent do politics guide the prevalence of privatization?
  • I have read much about the presence of privatization, but to what extent are private companies really involved in state education?
  • On a smaller scale, how does privatization, when it does affect schools (like Earlham High School), affect teachers? Administrators? Students?

By conducting interviews with members of the UEA community, teachers and administrators from state and privatized schools (or academies) in Norwich, and the Norwich City Council/Norfolk County Council, I will try to gauge how different people view this aspect of England’s state education. Striking balance will remain my overarching goal. My posts hereafter will deal primarily with the interviews I conduct with various individuals over the next several weeks. The first with Dr. Sandra Leaton Gray will appear in the next post.

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2 responses so far ↓

  •   Karl // Feb 27th 2010 at 15:42

    I’m still unclear about what the organizations who provide resources to private schools get out of the agreements. Why do they take over schools? Why did Labour, the party that started public education for all, abdicate the state’s responsibility to educate its children?

  •   Brandon R. // Feb 28th 2010 at 07:59

    Starting with the question about Labour’s abdication of state education (Quick note: the term ‘public’ actually denotes the opposite type of school in England that that which we are familiar. A ‘public’ school is equivalent to an American private school or an Ivy League school.), I would initially answer that question by citing the trend of declining standards of state education over the last few decades. The system could not sustain itself without finding other ways to ensure quality education. At first, Tory and Labour governments gave greater power to a free market economy. By the 1990s, Labour solidified this direction by taking great leaps into the use of private companies to sponsor and inject funds into failing schools.

    Now, that answer may not be so straightforward (are they ever?). After my interview with Dr. Leaton Gray (which can be found here: http://tinyurl.com/yzo5mv8 ), I encountered an argument that downplays the influence of private companies in state education. Dr. Leaton Gray stated that there should be greater privatization if the government wants to move in that direction. So far, while New Labour offers expanded lists of ‘accredited’ organizations to merge with or take over schools, it does not relinquish many of its controls over state education. I am now hesitant to state that the government has abdicated its responsibility to educate England’s children. Of course, this cannot ignore the real impact of academies and private sponsors. This should provide for some very interesting interviews with leaders of city academies in Norwich.

    The first question about the motivation behind merging with/taking over schools in the first place warrants no simple answer. It depends on the organization that sponsors the school and the extent of their interest in the school.

    These companies may enter these failing schools because it is an investment. In 2007, Goldman Sachs (an investment firm now regularly mentioned in the media) offered to take over failing schools in Tower Hamlets in East London. Tower Hamlets refused, primarily out of what seems to be loyalty to the schools already in place (see the article here: http://tinyurl.com/ya4zxxv). Goldman Sachs would surely overlook this poor region of England if they could not gain from it. Perhaps they sought some way to bolster their reputation, get some financial returns for their sponsorship, or prepare students in Tower Hamlets to later join the Goldman Sachs business. I am still uncertain as to what financial gains these private companies get from the school, though.

    Certainly, private organizations do not always seek profit. For example, City Academy Norwich is sponsored by the University of East Anglia. I plan to ask about this relationship when I meet with a representative from the Academy. I would be surprised if UEA’s sponsorship is profitable financially. On the other hand, I would find it less surprising if UEA’s sponsorship sought greater community involvement.

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