‘Eliminate the teachers’

Matthew Bennett

In September 2018, the Institute for Fiscal Studies reported that there had been an 8 per cent cut in total school funding per pupil since 2010, a figure that even special advisers at the Department for Education don’t try to dispute. Around two thousand headteachers marched to Downing Street in a protest over funding. There has been a steady drip of stories of teachers buying materials, clothing and food for their pupils. Many schools have been forced to adopt four-day weeks. The money that the new chancellor, Sajid Javid, promised in last week’s spending review would bring funding back up only to 2009-10 levels, and the policy of ‘levelling up schools across the country’, announced by Boris Johnson at the end of August, means more of the money would go to schools that need it less (often, as it happens, in Conservative constituencies). Gavin Williamson, in his first speech to Parliament as Johnson’s education secretary, called for a return to ‘the Victorian spirit of ingenuity’.

Meanwhile, there have been more scandals involving the private companies in control of many English schools, including the collapse of the Wakefield City Academies Trust at the end of 2017. In January 2018, the public accounts committee flagged up ‘a succession of high-profile academy failures that have been costly to the taxpayer and damaging to children’s education’. The committee repeated its call – first made two years earlier – for more effective oversight of our fragmented, marketised and partially privatised school system.

Other guilty secrets continued to leak out. In July 2018, the education select committee drew attention to the rising numbers of students being excluded or ‘off-rolled’. They found that ‘zero tolerance’ behaviour policies – in other words, the ‘no excuses’ culture imported into the English education system from US charter schools – were driving this increase. Earlier this year, whistleblowers at an academy chain spoke out about ‘flattening the grass’ and other practices. In April, a parent sued the DfE because her autistic daughter tried to kill herself after months in an isolation booth. The students least able to cope with a ‘zero tolerance’ culture, and most likely to be dumped out of schools, are those with special educational needs, already on the receiving end of deep cuts to local government funding.

It isn’t only students who are being pushed out. In July, the School Teachers’ Review Body reported that teacher recruitment and retention ‘continues to deteriorate’. The DfE’s own statistics show that one in six teachers who qualified in 2017 dropped out after one year. A third of those who qualified five years ago have already left the profession. And they are not being replaced. The STRB noted that the government will miss its recruitment target for postgraduate teacher training for the seventh year in a row.

The education secretary’s response to all this was rather surprising. Williamson’s predecessor, Damian Hinds, succeeded Justine Greening in January 2018. In his first big speech as secretary of state, Hinds enthusiastically plugged the BETT trade fair, ‘the world’s biggest education technology event’. This year, he opened the show, hailing the UK’s ‘EdTech sector’ as the fourth largest in the world, ‘with a projected export value of around £170 million’. In August 2018, he called on ‘Silicon Valley giants’ such as Microsoft and Apple to ‘spearhead’ a ‘classroom revolution’. His initial round of visits to schools seemed to have taken place in a parallel education system, or a bad sci-fi movie: ‘I’ve been fortunate enough to see technology being used in revolutionary ways. Students are able to explore the rainforest, steer virtual ships, or program robots from their classroom.’

This kind of talk wasn’t new. We had already seen the coalition’s ‘Tablets for Schools’ initiative; the setting-up of the Education Technology Action Group by the DfE and BIS (now superseded by the EdTech Leadership Group); the rolling-out of computer-based tests, such as the times tables test for eight to nine-year-olds (an ‘innovative use of technology in testing’) and the new baseline assessment in the Reception year; and the relentless promotion of EdTech by think tanks such as Nesta and the Innovation Unit, as well as lobbyists including Edtech UK. As Tamasin Cave pointed out some time ago, academisation has made English schools ‘a magnet for tech interests’. In 2016, the Finnish educationalist Pasi Sahlberg predicted a ‘war’ between independent research on education technology and industry-backed studies. Responding to Sahlberg, Neil Selwyn noted that ‘digital technologies have long been bought and sold in education despite the lack of sustained evidence regarding effectiveness and outcomes’.

Under Hinds, the EdTech sales pitch got noticeably louder. And there was a new emphasis: that the ‘effective and evidence-based use of technology’ would be the key to reducing teachers’ workload. In 2016, a report commissioned by the DfE had found that one way to tackle excessive workload would be for the government to ‘support the MIS market to develop and diversify’. (MIS stands for management information system: software used by school managers to collect and analyse data – chiefly test scores, grades and attendance figures – in order to assess the performance of students and teachers.)

But there was a lot more of this stuff after Hinds became secretary of state. Last November, the Teacher Workload Advisory Group published a report called ‘Making Data Work’. It praised the ‘automated detention registers’ and ‘behaviour workflows’ – all part of the MIS, obviously – developed by the Ark academy chain. Hinds’s response included a pledge that all schools would have ‘robust infrastructure for cloud working’ to make possible the ‘wider use of online testing’. The real solution to the problem of teachers’ workload, it would seem, is to eliminate the teachers.

In April, Hinds launched an EdTech Strategy, putting £10 million on the table to ‘support innovation’: Nesta would administer the money through their ‘impact investment’ arm. One of the beneficiaries is a UK firm called Arbor Education, whose main product is a ‘smart cloud-based MIS’ used by big academy chains such as United Learning and Reach2. Interestingly, a former director of the company is Ian Armitage, the former chairman and CEO of HgCapital and a one-time trustee of The Kemnal Academies Trust. (The chair of the DfE’s Academies and Free Schools Board, Tom Attwood, is also a former trustee of TKAT – and also, as it happens, in the private equity industry.) Another ex-director of Arbor Education is Lennart Hergel, who ‘began his career at JPMorgan in investment banking’, ‘moved on to derivative product structuring’ and ‘later set up his own entrepreneurial turnaround/complex project-financing boutique’.

Hergel, it turns out, was also a director of Virtual Class Ltd, another company receiving taxpayers’ money via Nesta. The firm, which now trades as Third Space Learning, offers online test prep for Year 6 students facing their Key Stage 2 SATs. One of Third Space Learning’s directors is Isabel Newman, who also works for Nesta. She has had a seat on the board of two more of the companies being backed by the DfE: CogBooks – a transnational firm selling an ‘Advanced Adaptive Learning platform’ – and Getmyfirstjob.

But no amount of state subsidies will make businesses such as Arbor Education or Virtual Class into viable competitors of Facebook, Microsoft and Google, which are rapidly taking over the education ‘investment space’. While Facebook – or, rather, its Summit Learning Platform – has hit some bumps in the road, with concerns over data privacy and protests by students, Google is well on the way to achieving a monopoly position in both US and UK schools markets, thanks to its free G Suite for Education and cheap Chromebooks. Google’s Expeditions Pioneer Program is introducing British pupils to the wonders of virtual education. Google’s Head of Education Europe warmly welcomed the DfE’s EdTech Strategy.