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Education blue paper

Dave Lister is not surprised the Tories back Ruth Kelly’s White Paper, much was in their manifesto not Labour’s.
It 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 Kelly ‘was 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 of selection.

The Secretary of State for Education Ruth Kelly has claimed that the White Paper is pro-parent. This is questionable since:

  1. direct parental representation is actually reduced on the governing bodies of the new types of school
  2. 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.