|t should not have been a surprise
that David Cameron announced, shortly after his
election as leader of the Conservative Party, that
Tory MPs would support the Education Bill, which
will follow the White Paper Higher Standards, Better
Schools for All. After all, its main provisions
are based on the principles outlined in the Tory
education manifesto in the last election. There
was nothing in the Labour manifesto about setting
up trust schools or stripping Local Authorities
of their power to organise admissions into community
schools. When the White Paper was introduced in
the House of Commons, the Secretary of State Ruth
cheered by Conservative MPs…in sharp contrast
to the muted response given to her speech by Labour
backbenchers’. (Times Education Supplement).
However it is important to note that the Conservatives
want all schools to have control over their admissions,
which Blair rejects, and may be a sticking point
over their support for the Education Bill.
The ‘philosophy’ behind these proposals
is rooted in the Prime Minister’s obsession
with making the state sector more attractive to
middle-class parents. It is not about making all
schools into private schools, but it does include
inviting the private sector to play a part in the
running of state schools.
It is important to note that by ‘schools’ we
mean secondary schools. Reforms during the previous
Blair administrations – such as the literacy
and numeracy strategies – were directed principally
at primary schools. The view is that these have
now been ‘fixed’ and the focus has
shifted to the secondary sector.
Thankfully the White Paper has provoked wide opposition
among Labour MPs, including from former ministers,
as well as from the education trade unions and
the education world generally. This opposition
has focused on the ability of the new ‘trust’ schools
to set their own admissions criteria which, together
with a similar freedom for academies, threatens
to increase educational inequality through a form
The Secretary of State for Education Ruth Kelly
has claimed that the White Paper is pro-parent.
This is questionable since:
- direct parental representation is actually
reduced on the governing bodies of the new
types of school
- these measures may result in schools choosing
parents rather than the reverse.
Most parents want the freedom to choose the best
secondary school for their children, but in some
areas there is not really much choice and parents
might prefer to be confident that their local school
is good rather than having a wide choice of possible
institutions. My experience of campaigning in Brent
East in the last general election was that nobody
said they were going to vote Labour because increased
choice was on offer, and it has been argued that
the only people really sold on this idea are Blair
himself and Lord Adonis!
Once the Bill becomes law, it is envisaged that
all new schools must be trust, foundation or voluntary
aided schools or academies. There will be no place
for new ‘bog standard’ community schools,
Local Authority comprehensives. Existing schools
will be encouraged to become trust schools, which
can be achieved by little more than a vote of their
governing body. Trust schools will take ownership
of their land and control their own admissions
and staffing policies. They will however be bound
by national legislation, including the national
curriculum. It would be wrong to suggest that trust
schools will have complete freedom to select. They
can only offer up to 10% of places on the basis
of ‘aptitude’. However they can establish
their own admissions criteria, and indirect selection
can occur in a variety of ways.
It is worth noting that things could have been
worse. It is believed that the Prime Minister and
his more ‘radical’ advisers may have
favoured allowing trust schools to be run directly
by private companies. This is not going to happen.
It is also worth noting that, whilst trust schools
resemble grant maintained schools in that they
are independent of local control, one crucial difference
is that there is no financial inducement to become
a trust school. It is about greater independence
and control over your operations, not cash. This
has led some commentators to speculate that there
may not be a very great ‘take up’ of
trust status. After all, even with the financial
package available, relatively few schools took
up GM status. But this remains to be seen.
The heart of the opposition from Labour MPs and
others to the White Paper proposals has been around
the provision for trust schools to set their own
admissions criteria, rather than the local authorities
which are currently responsible for admission to
community schools. This could lead to a situation
in which each secondary school sets its own admission
criteria without regard to any other institution.
Instead of planning you have an unregulated market.
The consequences of this are difficult to predict
but the fear is that it could lead to a two-tier
system of successful schools stuffed with middle-class
pupils with less well-funded schools being attended
largely by the less privileged. The reality is
likely to be less clear-cut than this but, at the
very least, there is no guarantee of greater equality
of provision as a result of these measures.
The scale of the rebellion over the White Paper
is considerable, encompassing Labour MPs from across
the political spectrum. Even the Deputy Prime Minister
John Prescott has been moved to express his concern,
as has the former Secretary of State for Education
Estelle Morris. A group of dissenters has produced
an alternative White Paper and it has been suggested
that the Government may delay the introduction
of the Education Bill from January to March 2006
to allow more time to win over the rebels.
Clearly the city academies programme is not a
new idea, but it is central to the strategy outlined
in the White Paper. The target is to have 200 academies
in place by the year 2010.
The academy strand contributes to the general
inequity of the whole package. What happens is
that a private sponsor contributes £2 million
to create an academy either as a new school or
transforming an existing school. The state contributes
perhaps another £8 million. This results
in a significant amount of the additional funding
allocated to education being concentrated on a
relatively small number of schools with many others,
some with equal needs, not receiving this largesse.
The Times Educational Supplement has again provided
useful information, this time showing that none
of the academies so far authorised have replaced
schools in special measures, although the original
understanding was that they would replace schools
in difficulty in deprived areas. This has led the
DfES to admit that there are no set criteria for
determining that a school becomes an academy. The
suspicion is that this policy is driven by the
government’s target and that no viable scheme
is likely to be rejected. It has taken the Government’s
great ally, former Tory activist and architect
of the City Technology Colleges, Sir Cyril Taylor,
to suggest that future schemes for academies should
only be considered if they are to be located in
areas of deprivation.
New Labour has also been encouraging the growth
of faith schools again relatively free from local
authority control. A Christian charity, the United
Learning Trust, has become the largest single backer
of the academies programme, sponsoring seven schools
with at least another four planned.
The Church of England itself is also a major sponsor
of academies as is the evangelical car dealer Peter
Vardy (who opposes Darwinian evolution teaching).
Many would like to see the abolition of faith schools,
although currently this does not appear to be a
very realistic demand. However, consciously working
to expand the number of faith schools, which the
Government is doing, is another matter altogether.
There is a real dilemma here for Labour councils
that may not be wildly enthusiastic about the academies
programme. If you need a new school and require
central funding/approval, you are not likely to
receive it unless you agree that it will be an
academy. Evidence for this was reported at a Socialist
Education Association meeting at which Labour councillors
complained that they were ‘being blackmailed
into opening academies because they would otherwise
lose funding to rebuild schools’.
Equally, if you are the headteacher or governing
body of a school that requires a rebuild, you are
going to be extremely tempted to go down the academies
route. So, whether or not trust schools really
take off, the academies programme is very likely
to continue to flourish.
Among other proposals in the White Paper, in reverse
order of acceptability, are:
- The right of parents who are dissatisfied
with their local school to ask Ofsted to inspect
it. Failing schools are to be given a year
to recover and if not face possible closure.
Mick Brookes, the General Secretary of the National
Association of Headteachers, commented on this: “Experience
shows that it takes on average 18 months to
turn round what is deemed as a failing school
and that is with considerable support”.
- The right of parents to set up Parent
Councils. (This of course they always had). The
point however is that, because direct parent
representation on the governing bodies of trust
schools is drastically reduced, trust schools
have to establish a Parents Council which must
be consulted by the governing body.
- There are positive measures to improve
the nutritional quality of school meals. Ruth
Kelly is keen also to take action over vending
machines and tuckshops. Schools will no longer
be free to fill their pupils with fizzy pop,
sweets and junk meals.
- As a genuine step to increase parental
choice, free transport to school will be extended
to families in financial need.
In previous reviews of Labour education policies,
I have generally concluded that they are a mixture,
a curate’s egg, of good and bad parts. Unfortunately
I cannot be so generous with the current White
Paper. The conclusion has to be that it is largely
a Blue Paper which deserves to be enthusiastically
supported by all Conservative MPs and opposed by
all genuine Labour, Liberal Democrat and nationalist
MPs, apart from the small pockets of progressivism,
some of which have been indicated above.
In general terms the continuation and development
by Labour in office of the twin educational themes
of the previous Conservative administrations of
standards and accountability have been right, even
if the details of the policies adopted have not
always been so. However this White Paper focuses
on structures as well as standards, which Labour
said it would not do. It reduces the powers of
Local Authorities, changing them from providers
of services to champions of children, whatever
that may mean.
It has laid the basis for a Hobbesian world where
a plethora of atomic secondary schools whirl around,
when what is really required is a collaborative
system where schools work in partnership with democratically
accountable Local Education Authorities and where
every school receives the funding and the encouragement
needed to be an excellent school.