Tuesday 21 August 2012

Michael Gove and the school "Academification" process

In the wake of the 2012 Olympic games, Michael Gove's education department has received a lot of media attention focussing on three main issues; that he has signed off on plans to concrete over thirty school playing fields and then lied about it; that he cancelled the two hours a week minimum sports requirements at the behest of party leader David Cameron and that just days before the Olympic games began he cancelled minimum outdoor playing space requirements for schools.

Plenty of much deserved criticism has come from across the media spectrum, with critical editorials in the Guardian and the right-wing Telegraph alike. The Telegraph even launched a "keep the flame alive" campaign to oppose Gove's attacks on school sports. Despite all of this negative publicity it should be noted that the mainstream media are missing a much bigger story; the fact that Gove has privatised more than half of the secondary schools in England, playing fields and all.

According to the latest figures, almost 2,000 secondary schools have been transferred to private ownership under Gove's Academies scheme, which stipulates that in order to obtain Academy status a school must transfer their property deeds (including playing fields) to the new private sector education providers. This process has been a classic example of the privatisation-by-stealth strategy and the mainstream media has played right along with it. Even Guardian reports on the "Academisation process" refer to the transference of state infrastructure to unaccountable private sector interests in terms of allowing schools to "enjoy the greater freedoms that result". Another oft repeated Tory euphemism for this school privatisation drive is the claim that becoming an Academy provides "new powers to break free of local council bureaucracy".

The mainstream media seem remarkably unwilling to explain in simple terms what becoming an Academy actually means, preferring instead to recycle content free soundbytes from Tory party HQ about "greater freedoms" and "tackling bureaucracy". There only seem to be two plausible explanations for this media stance; either the majority of mainstream journalists don't know that £billions worth of state funded infrastructure is being given away for free as part of the "Academisation process", or that the majority of journalists do know what the process actually entails but continue to use Tory euphemisms to hide the truth from the public because they actively approve of the school property privatisation agenda and wouldn't want to undermine the process by spelling out in simple terms what is actually going on.

One side effect of the "Academisation process" is that the School Playing Fields Advisory Panel will have absolutley no powers to advise against the sale of Academy playing fields, since the freeholds have been transferred to private sector control. Not that this matters all that much, given that Gove has repeatedly ignored the panel's findings in order to approve playing field sales and that he has now revoked minimum requirements for the teaching of sports and for the provision of outdoor play space, presumably in order to undermine the panel's ability to provide any evidence based opposition to future sales at the schools that remain under state ownership.

There has been no formal process to actually calculate the value of the school properties so far transferred to private sector ownership, so a rough estimate will have to do. If we make a conservative estimate that the average value of these schools (as redevelopment land) could be somewhere in the region of £5million, the transference of over 1,900 schools would provide the eye watering figure of £9.5 billion worth of state infrastructure just given away, and that is before the value of the actual buildings and school materials are taken into account.

It is also important to note who the beneficiaries of this Tory largesse have been. Some of the biggest players on the Academy scene include the Harris Federation, run by and named after Phil Harris, a Tory peer and the owner of Carpetright. Another key player on the Academy scene is ARK Academies. The Ark board includes Paul Marshall, who co-authored the Lib-Dem Orange Book and Stanley Fink, the current Tory party treasurer who previously donated £2.62 million to the Tory party.

One of the latest additions to the ARK Academies property portfolio makes a very interesting case. The ink had barely dried on the deed transfer which passed Elliot school in Wandsworth from local council ownership to ARK Academies, when ARK began planning to sell off more than half of the property, which is described as "surplus land" on the school website. This "surplus land" contains several sports pitches, athletics facilities, a kids' nature reserve, an outdoor performance stage, the school car park and even a memorial tree.

As the mainstream media debates the "Olympic legacy" and Gove's strategy of approving the sale of sports fields against expert advice, it is hard not to feel that they are missing the bigger picture; that by removing nearly 2,000 schools form "local council bureaucracy" Gove has given these private interests "greater freedoms" to cash in by selling off their sports facilities.

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