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We don’t want no Blairucation

Dave Lister says most people want good local schools not market-place type choice

At the time of writing it appears that the Education & Inspections Bill 2006 is likely to become law in the autumn. It is important to be clear about what the issues are in relation to the new ‘trust’ schools and what they are not. The Government is not aiming to abolish comprehensive education. It is not bringing in 100% selection where it does not already exist. What it is aiming to do is to increase the diversification of our comprehensive schools and the number of state schools run by independent foundations or as academies by private companies, religious groups or other educational institutions. A common feature of these structures is their relative independence from Local Authorities.

Much of this is already happening. The academies programme is in full swing and a fresh swathe of new academies will be established in the autumn. Foundation schools already exist and legislation has been passed to ‘fast track’ the move to foundation status with minimal consultation. Interestingly the Bill does not refer to ‘trust’ schools. This term has only been used in the wider political debate. The Bill refers only to ‘foundation’ schools. The former Education Secretary Ruth Kelly (quoted in Governors News June 2006) provided little clarity on this matter, defining trust schools as ‘foundation schools with a foundation as distinct from foundation schools without a foundation’. A foundation school without a foundation has partnership governors appointed by its governing body and still owns its own land and buildings, controls its admissions and staffing, just as a foundation school with a foundation, or trust school, would do. So there you have it!

What is wrong with introducing trust schools? In my view it is wrong for a Labour Government, relying on Tory support, to be encouraging private companies to control schools. Just as with academies, if a private company is the trust it can appoint the majority of governors and therefore control the appointment and possible dismissal of the headteacher, strategic decisions on the direction of the school, its staffing structure, the shape of its budget etc. There are also inherent dangers in giving these powers to religious groups. For example, the academies run by the Vardy group in the North East teach creationism. A majority of nominated governors also means less representation for parents, the community as a whole and the Local Authority, unless the sponsor or foundation chooses to include people from these categories among its nominated governors, which seems unlikely. It should also be noted that academies and foundation/trust schools are /will be able to select up to 10% of their pupils by aptitude.

There are also concerns about the transparency of this process. For instance, the Times Educational Supplement published some research (October 7 2005), which showed that almost none of the new academies had replaced failing schools, contrary to the claims of ministers. Not one of the 28 schools replaced by an academy up to that time was in special measures at the time of closure. Indeed three highly successful City Technology Colleges had been converted into academies, receiving a total of £24 million of additional public money in the process. It appears that the DfES is interested in driving through its academies programme whatever the cost. A spokesman for the DfES dismissed these concerns as follows: “Parents aren’t interested in semantics: what they want is a good local school”.

As critics such as Compass have acknowledged, the Bill as amended has some positive features. For instance it does include measures to prevent interviewing by church schools and to try to encourage the new types of school to take measures to ensure a balanced intake. The provision for trusts to be based on collaboration between schools is a progressive step. Thus in Havering four schools are planning to collaborate over the delivery of the revised 14-19 curriculum. However there is no reason why legislation could not have been framed to allow this sort of development without providing private companies and religious foundations with the means to control more schools

Present Government policies are likely to lead to increasing competition between schools with huge amounts of resources being pumped into the academies in their initial stages (foundation/trust schools do not receive additional public funding) and the danger of sink schools developing. Sir Peter Newsam noted in an article in the Times Educational Supplement: “Fortunately, if Ofsted reports are any guide, there remain hundreds of schools which are successful and fully comprehensive, in the sense of containing within themselves pupils of all abilities and family circumstances.” What is wrong with this? Surely what most people want are good local schools not diverse ones.

What should a future genuine Labour Government do about this mess? We are probably stuck with the existing academies and foundation schools. However the programme could be terminated so that no further schools in these categories were established. There needs to be a partnership between central government, local government and school governors to ensure that all schools are good schools.

The debate should be about what educational provision should look like in the Twenty First Century, for instance in terms of harnessing technological developments to enrich and enhance children’s educational experience and to make it more enjoyable, rather than being about tinkering with the control of our schools.

Hey Blairites leave those kids alone!