Education and Inspections Bill
Article for the Birmingham Post: below
I wrote the following article for the 6 March edition of the Birmingham Post, which appeared under the following headline:
'Why I'm the rebel with a good cause'
Lynne Jones MP
I was one of 95 Labour MPs who signed the Alternative Education White Paper criticising the Government proposals for education “reform”. Despite some concessions in the Education and Inspections Bill published this week, my key concerns have not been addressed. The Bill’s proposal to give further control of our schools to business and religious organisations raises serious concerns over accountability. I also question the ability of the measures in the Bill to really address the underperformance of schools with a disproportionate number of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The Bill gives local education authorities the duty to promote ‘diversity’ and ‘choice’ These are seductive words but what do they mean in reality? The Government’s idea is that the competition created by parents choosing between institutions will raise standards. But diversity of itself does not guarantee choice when schools are able to discriminate on grounds of faith or select on the basis of ability or aptitude, as well as in other more subtle ways. As the Audit Commission, the independent body charged with checking the way public money is spent, has warned: "Inevitably, one parent’s ability to exercise choice potentially denies another’s".
The Government say that independent status is needed so schools can benefit through partnerships with other organisations. However, partnerships are already encouraged, for example through employment compacts with local business and the involvement of arts organisations, as in the excellent creative partnerships scheme. What’s more there is no evidence that the quasi-market structure proposed will raise standards. As the Education and Skills Select Committee pointed out: "No causal link has been demonstrated between external partners and the success of a school, or between the independence of a school from local authority control and its success".
The “foundations” that are to run the independent but publicly funded schools proposed in the Bill will own the buildings and be able to contract and procure building projects. They will be able to appoint a majority to the board of governors, appoint the headteacher and senior management team, control admissions and decide the school's ethos.
I am deeply concerned that this will mean less not more accountability to the community.
Over the 26 years I have been first a councillor and then an MP, there have been several occasions when groups of parents having concerns about the running of their child’s school have sought my intervention and, not unreasonably, have expected their elected representative to be able to ‘do something’. More recently, parents have been surprised at the limits of our rights to intervene. Even under the current arrangements, considerable amounts of power are already devolved to school governors, most of them unelected and the rest elected under a very limited franchise. A few years ago, MPs and councillors found themselves powerless to prevent the closure of St Philip’s Sixth Form College and the associated loss of the public investment in the buildings retained by the Catholic Church. The most recent instance of parental disquiet over the running of a school in my constituency was only resolved when the governors deferred to the Council to investigate the complaints made by parents. Pressure from elected members like myself, acting on behalf of our constituents, was essential for an acceptable outcome. The ability of elected representatives to assist parents will be further limited if schools are operating even more freely of the local authority.
It is important to note that the Government’s proposals for independent state schools have not been devised in response to demand from either parents or schools. The school governors, teachers and head teachers I have spoken to value the support and expertise available through the City’s Education Department and do not wish to see it undermined.
Labour came to power on a promise to remove the financial advantages given to grant maintained (“opted out”) schools by the previous government. Though renamed as foundation schools, they retained the ability to run their own admissions within the advisory “Code”. Despite the availability of foundation status, no schools in Birmingham (and few elsewhere) have taken this option, indicating little appetite for the further powers envisaged in the Education and Inspections Bill.
On the contrary, I have had letters and emails from schools in my constituency expressing ‘extreme disquiet’ and ‘some anger’ about the proposals. Such concerns are not coming from schools that have a ‘bad reputation’. The Governing Body of Selly Park Technology College for Girls (a school that has received national recognition) has passed a resolution expressing concern over “accountability to the electorate and parents and the lack of open, accountable strategic planning” over a proposal for seven city academies in Birmingham. Academies are the forerunner of the independent schools proposed in the Bill and are being foisted on cash-strapped councils like Birmingham to guarantee desperately needed investment in school buildings.
Head teachers and governors are asking: Where is the evidence that academies/trusts (they’re really the same thing) will bring about improvements for all children? Who will be the ‘as few as 11’ unpaid governors who will have such extensive powers and will they be accountable to the community they serve? How much time will be wasted entering into competition for external backers? One school governor has told me “giving us more responsibility will drive away those with jobs and the skills to be governors”.
Allowing schools the freedom to innovate in relation to the curriculum, another alleged advantage of trust schools, does not require the removal of democratic accountability. Finland, which tops international tables in educational attainment, has a fully comprehensive system run by local government. Finnish teachers have a high status and a point is made of giving them autonomy to innovate to produce high standards, unconstrained by national testing requirements.
The Government should look at different ideas for raising standards and securing a better social mix in our schools. The Government has made welcome moves to provide additional funds to assist pupils falling behind in key subjects but these are ad hoc and do not go as far as the funding reforms suggested by Tim Brighouse, well-respected former City Education Officer.
The Brighouse proposal is to reform the funding system by introducing a simple entitlement per capita for pupils entering secondary schools based on their prior attainment on entry. A higher rate would go to those with the lowest attainment. Schools would then have incentives to take on those who need most help as well as those who are going to ‘deliver’ high league table results.
As well as concerns about accountability and the competition model, the question of fair admissions exercises many Labour MPs.
The Government promised that the social segregation inherent in the existing admissions’ system would be addressed by requiring admissions to take place ‘in accordance’ with a Code of Practice. However MPs will not be told what’s to be in the Code before they have to vote on the Bill! How can MPs judge if admissions arrangements will be fair when we don’t know what they will be? Then there’s the question of the continuance of the 11+. Now there is cross-party agreement that selection at 11 belongs to a past era, it is difficult to comprehend why the Bill retains the hurdles that prevent the discontinuance of selection at 11 in existing grammar schools.
I share the Prime Minister's wish to raise standards in our poorer performing schools and to challenge the rest to achieve even more but I do not believe the structural changes in the Bill will deliver on these aims. We know what makes a good school: strong leadership, excellent teaching and the support of parents. Retaining and attracting good teachers should be our top priority, not the structural changes in the Bill.
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