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From curate's egg to rotten tomato?

Dave Lister on the damaging consequences for education of a Tory victory

Chartist has been critical of Labour's education policy over the last twelve years. We have highlighted, for example, our concerns over the academies programme and the testing regime. However we have also welcomed the increase in funding and the evidence of rising standards.

To some extent there will be continuity if the Tories came to power, as there was in the transition from Tories to Labour in areas such as Ofsted inspection, testing and league tables. The academies programme will continue and be expanded, as Labour are planning to do, only more so. Testing will continue largely in it present form. There will still be a major role for Ofsted.

What is likely to change though is....

  • SureStart. The Tories' position on this has been inconsistent, but there are likely to be major cuts in this successful programme if they come to power
  • Building Schools for the Future. They aim to abolish this programme.
  • The introduction of primary academies. From bad to worse!
  • Soldiers in classrooms. Attention!
  • The role of Local Authorities (LAs). Likely to be drastically reduced.

Let us look at Conservative policy in four areas: early years, primary and secondary schools, and LAs.

Statements by the Tories on SureStart over the last few years have been ambiguous. They have stated that Labour intend to spend an additional £200 million on this programme. The Tories will spend £50 million of this and transfer the other £150 million for expenditure on health visitors for the most needy families. However junior minister Beverley Hughes rejoinded that the Government is actually intending to spend only an additional £79 million on SureStart. Therefore the remaining £121 million would have to come from cuts. Labour Scrutiny asked whether these would come from closing existing Children's Centres and/or drastically reducing their budgets. However at other times Tory spokespeople have said that they are 100% behind SureStart and there will be no cuts. The best clue probably comes from a statement by Philip Hammond, shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, that all programmes including SureStart could be subject to 10-15% cuts.

The Tories are very impressed by the situation in Sweden where there are a significant number of schools that are funded by but independent of the state and run by groups of parents. They intend to introduce this system here. Currently there are some schools of this type in Britain. It seems that the Tories want to massively expand their numbers. This links in with a scheme to extend the academy programme to the primary sector to create what they call New Academies. Interestingly the Tories are claiming that they are the true heirs of the Blairite agenda. What is curious here (apart from the concept itself!) is that, while the secondary academies programme was initially targeted at lower-achieving schools, academy status will be offered to the highest achieving primary schools. Critics of this idea have pointed out that the small size of many primary schools, particularly in rural areas, makes this a somewhat impractical idea. Given that the Tories are saying they won't need sponsors of these schools and that the state will provide all the funding, one wonders where the money will come from, especially in the context of swingeing cuts in public expenditure generally. We should note however the point that Conor Ryan made in his blog that Labour has already set up some 3-18 academies incorporating nursery and primary education. (Conor's Commentary, 25 April 2009).

The Conservatives also want to make 11 year-olds who are falling behind at the end of their primary school education repeat their final year. Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers & Lecturers has stated: ‘…it is a bad idea. Children don't learn by getting more of the same. The Conservatives also need to consider that children who are forced to stay behind will resent and reject a further year at primary school'.

Ending the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme will mean that plans to rebuild and refurbish secondary schools, many of which are in desperate need of this work, will be shelved. In Under Scrutiny, Labour claims that the Tories would cut £4.5 billion from the BSF programme, leading to the cancellation of one in seven secondary school rebuilding and refurbishment projects.

The academies programme will continue, focusing on lower achieving schools. (This is no different from Labour policy). Michael Gove, shadow education secretary, promised at the last Tory party conference that in the first hundred days of government they would identify the ‘very worst' schools that have been placed under special measures for more than a year. Proven academy sponsors will take over the schools by September 2011.

Diplomas will be abolished. Whilst to some extent the jury is still out on the efficacy of this new qualification, withdrawing it will remove opportunities from kids who do not want to pursue a strictly academic path. Diplomas could also become a way of giving parity to academic and vocational qualifications. Ed Balls has promised that Labour will maintain its pledge to introduce new diplomas to replace ‘A' Levels. “Our diplomas, combining theoretical and applied learning, are our best chance to break the historical divide”. (New Statesman 27 August 2009).

The Tories' 2007 policy document (Raising the bar, closing the gap, Policy Green Paper no.1) places a great deal of emphasis on tackling poor behaviour. They state that they will give more power to heads and teachers to tackle this. One measure that they have floated is to abolish appeal panels for pupils who have been permanently excluded from their school. This would mean that if a head decided to permanently exclude and three of their governors upheld this decision, there would be no right of appeal except through the courts.

The Tories want to bring squaddies into the classroom “to tackle indiscipline and improve leadership”. This idea has provoked considerable opposition. Ian Toone, the Senior Professional Officer (Education) with Voice, a union for educational professionals, said “…we are very suspicious of claims that people who have opted for non-teaching professions (such as the armed forces) can, by simply being parachuted into the classroom, miraculously do a better job than those who have dedicated their professional lives to teaching”. (The Guardian 7 October 2009).

One plank of the Tory argument is a reformist one. They point rightly to areas of growing inequality under Labour and claim that their policies will help to correct this. They also talk about devolving power from the centre to groups of individuals. “There is such a thing as society but it is not the same thing as the state…Britain today is one of the most centralised countries in the democratic world…Society is becoming more unequal and more polarised…” (Raising the bar, closing the gap).

Although the introduction of academies and trust schools and the expansion of the number of foundation schools under Labour has removed some, mainly secondary, schools from the Local Authority (LA) ambit, the government has changed rather than removed the role of the Local Authority. It wants them to be commissioners rather than providers of services, although currently many LAs do both. It has even given them additional powers of intervention to deal with failing schools. The Tories would remove significant numbers of primary schools from LA control. They do not conceive of LAs continuing to have an important strategic role and, in power long enough, one might expect the educational functions of LAs to begin to wither away.

As has been suggested, a Tory victory would have serious educational consequences, particularly in relation to the SureStart programme, the status of some primary schools, total funding available and the strategic role of LAs. However we cannot simply counterpose to this the wonderful prospect of five more years of Labour education policies. We need instead to continue to develop an alternative educational strategy. A key component of this would be an end to the academies programme. We should aim to make every school a good school. As we have consistently argued, targeting huge resources on a relatively small number of schools is inequitable and risks creating ‘sink' schools around them. As well as providing adequate resources, a combination of the increased dissemination of good practice – what do outstanding schools do?–with firm measures against unsatisfactory provision, would help to raise standards,

Some loosening of the testing regime is also required. This does not mean abandoning the emphasis on improving numeracy and literacy, but taking away some of the pressure that leads to ‘teaching to the test', especially in relation to Key Stage Two and GCSE preparation. There needs to be more emphasis on the broader curriculum, particularly at primary level.

From this perspective a Tory victory would constitute regression for our schools. Labour needs to spell out alternative policies, rather than creating division, which adds up to a real alternative