Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Interview #3: A Parent and Teacher’s Perspective

May 19th, 2010 · No Comments

In order to gain greater perspective on how a teacher and parent perceived the privatization of state education in the 21st century, I sought out an interview with a woman studying at UEA for her Master’s degree. She had taught (and remained employed part-time) at a local state secondary school in Norwich. Because of her ties to the state education system and pointed views on the subject, I have decided to maintain her anonymity.

Our meeting took place in two sessions. The first focused primarily on defining privatization (it remains in many ways elusive even to those who have been researching it for several months now) and the second addressed her personal feelings toward the subject as it has affected her profession as a teacher and intentions as a parent.

Privatization, as it applies to the merging of private companies/organization with state schools, can have one of many definitions. The variations mainly arise when considering the intentions of the private sponsor of the school. For example, a failing school could close and then be taken over by a faith-based organization. Given the basic definition of privatization and the establishment of academies, this faith-based organization would have absolute control over the financial allocations, curriculum, and general function of the school. Some, like the woman I interviewed, could find this potentially harmful, as it may directly and indiscreetly undermine a balanced cultivation of student opinion (having been inculcated with the very specific agenda of the school). Certainly, there are useful and relevant traits within this type of schooling (e.g. a vocational school preparing students for the workforce), but it still generates some unease about the intentions of the school and impact it has on students. (This issue would come up again in my interview with Richard Hewitt, who pointed out the issue many take with specialist schools and the limits they place on what a student learns in school.) In general, she emphasized the need for academies to consider what is sacrificed at the expense of propagating a biased curriculum.

Her thoughts to the fears of privatization and city academies led her to discuss her friend, D. Bookless and her relatively positive experience teaching at an oversubscribed and popular academy. Certainly, many question the “glossy cover” of academies and are right in doing so. Their assessment may not fully account for the positive experiences in academies, though.

To summarize her feelings on the fears and general sentiments shown by critics of privatization, she told me that “reputations last longer than realities.” In other words, people (parents, students, teachers) will likely stay attached to a school because of its general reception in the public and not because of its real intricacies (which may prove to be less than adequate). How does this relate to the subject of academies? Their introduction into the state education system creates a “consumer economy” in which many choose schools based on their charm, “glitz,” and general reception in the local community. (Of course, this is not always a proper way to gauge the success of a school.) Academies, in this way, provide a “quick fix” to the inadequacies of the state education system without creating lasting change.

Her less professional impression of privatization gave some sense of how a parent perceives the academy system. Certainly, academies can improve state education by boosting available resources (e.g. improved access of technology) and by refreshing a once-failing school. Still, there remains some hesitation. My interviewee said she would ultimately choose a standard school over an academy, for the latter can have a faith-based curriculum/instruction. Even if no strictly faith-based instruction is employed, academies and other specialist schools can still be less diverse and mixed than standard state schools.

Of course, this prioritization of diversity in state schools does not apply for all parents. In general, she noted that most parents would look for to the head teacher as a reflection of the school’s fit with the student’s personality. More immediately, a school’s academic calendar can influence a parent’s decision to send their child to a certain school (Academies often have a different schedule than other state schools, simply because they have the power dictate when school is in session.)

One of the interesting points she made regarding the supposed panacea of privatization and academies was its alternatives. She mentioned the simultaneous effort to encourage incredibly effective headteachers to move around from school to school in order to fix all the failures and boost results. While the program of “superheads” did not become mainstream or lasting, its success in Norwich schools (e.g. Hewitt School) shows how sometimes a school needs individualized attention, including those focused on leadership.

For having a bias against academies, my interviewee was able to acknowledge the recent successes of the academy program. The program makes many promises that, at least in the opinion of one teacher and parent, may be fulfilled immediately but will not last as funding and other issues begin to erode the purported “glossy cover” of academies.

Tags: Brandon

Interview #2: Mr. David Brunton

May 19th, 2010 · No Comments

Interview with David Brunton, headteacher of City Academy Norwich

Soon after my interview with Dr. Leaton Gray, I scheduled an interview with Mr. David Brunton, headteacher at City Academy Norwich. Before I go into the details of the interview and other observations I made, I felt it necessary to give some background on the “city academy” program (now commonly referred to “academies”).

In 2000, the New Labour government continued seek out ways to fulfil its initial campaign focus on “Education, education, education” by announcing the city academy program. The program seemed to imitate in many ways preceding programs to encourage the private sector (i.e. private companies, businesses) to invest in state education. According to David Blunkett, the Education Secretary at the time, the program was “a radical approach to promote greater diversity and break the cycle of failing schools in inner cities,” [Francis Becket, The Great City Academy Fraud (London: Continuum, 2007), 10] Each school (deemed failing or in “special measures” by Ofsted, the national school assessment organization) would be taken over and/or merged with a sponsor. This sponsor would be required to put forward two million pounds in capital invested in the academy and the government would fund the rest of the school (These public costs were expected to be about ten million pounds, but it often went well beyond this amount. Meanwhile, the private sector was only required to invest two million pounds – no more.). These sponsors could control many, if not all, aspects of the school including the hire of teachers, admission of students, use of the buildings/campus, and design of the curriculum.

Given the heated controversy of academies (mainly the issue taken with the heavy reliance of public funds in the privately-controlled institutions), I went into the interview with Mr. Brunton seeking to gain some perspective on how academies can positively rejuvenate and improve state education, for I hardly expected him to criticize academies as the headteacher of one.

First, some observations I noted while sitting in the lobby and in an assembly Mr. Brunton held with students (The assembly interrupted our meeting, but it actually helped a great deal). Coming from a public high school, I did not expect the lobby to feel like an office. Some large print on the wall (a quote from Mr. Brunton) read “We will always work with you to achieve the best outcome for your child in every situation. This is the key driving force behind all of our work.” On another door a sign stated “Ties and Blazers on beyond this point.” I also found it odd that two representatives from Tropicana walked in for their appointment with another administrator a few minutes after I sat down in the lobby (I am sure state schools do meet with private companies for contracts – e.g. a Pepsi vending machine – but it came across as less like a school and, again, more like an office).

This was especially evident in the assembly held in the middle of our meeting. Seated in the back of the auditorium, I saw Mr. Brunton and several other administrators ask students to submit through hand-held keypads answers to questions ranging from “Would you use the canteen if different food was offered?” to “Do you feel safe at school?” to “Should there be a ‘Rewards Room’ to contrast the ‘Discipline Room’?” These questions, among others, were clearly meant to evaluate the status of the Academy in its first few months in existence. On the other hand, another perspective could see the assembly as a meeting among employees who are asked to evaluate their level of satisfaction with the company.

My interview with Mr. Brunton began with a history of the City Academy and its recent transition from Earlham High School in August 2009. The traumatic four years prior to August 2009 set Earlham HS down the route to an evaluation of “Special Measures,” or failing. One of the main questions we focused on addressed the motivations for private companies to sponsor an academy. Sponsoring an academy “tick boxes for” organizations by presenting tax breaks and a way to increase their presence in the local community. (I would also later learn that sponsors often gain an actual profit from sponsoring academies after renting out parts of the building when school is not in session.)

City Academy Norwich has improved, in the few months prior to my interview, many of the ills that once plagued Earlham HS. Besides generally offering a “fresh start” and a “clean slate” to the same student population, the Academy saw the following changes:

Ø    Attendance:  5% increase

Ø    Disciplined Students: Great decreases in all stages of discipline used

Ø    Students estimate to pass GCSE: was 19%, now 38%

Ø    Teacher days lost: was 598 days, now 61 days

Certainly these are marked improvements, but Mr. Brunton appreciates that there is much work to be done.

When asked about whether the privatization and the city academy is the only solution to the issues facing state education (e.g. inequality in admissions, parental discontent, relevant curriculum, effective management, etc.), Mr. Brunton rightly stated that something had to change. One of the most difficult things for some to accept is the concept of “change” and its many different forms. So far, the City Academy was doing its best to change the school to fit the needs of its students.

The controversy surrounding the city academy program seemed muted to some extent against the relative gains made by the new administration and programs instituted by the City Academy and Mr. Brunton. It will most likely take some time before their true impact takes form, but I would say they are off to a generally positive start.

Tags: Brandon

The State of State Education

February 27th, 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.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

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.

Tags: Brandon