On 25 October 2005, the Department for Education and Skills published the Schools White Paper "Higher Standards, Better Schools for All - More Choice for Parents and Pupils". The White Paper is available at:
Articles prior to publication of the Bill
Information after publication of the Bill
'Alternative White Paper'
Like many other Labour back-benchers, I have serious reservations about the policies contained in the White Paper, some of which are explained in more detail in the article below. I am a signatory to the ’Alternative White Paper’ on Education and prior to this I responded to the Government’s consultation on the Admissions Code, calling for it to be mandatory and speaking out against selection and faith schools - click here for my response.
The Government have now decided to delay publication of the new Code and so I am hoping that this may mean the concerns of back-benchers, like myself, are being listened to.
I wrote the following article for Socialist Campaign Group News February 2006
EDUCATION REFORM – DIVERSITY OR ANARCHY?
Lynne Jones MP, 24 February 2006
In a well publicised speech Communities Minister, David Miliband, recently expressed the Government’s commitment to further devolution of power to local communities. But David Miliband did not list a single power to be given to elected councillors. His favour is for “volunteers” who apparently deserve more control but shouldn’t be troubled by accountability or election. Such arrangements, in fact, serve to keep real power at the centre.
When it comes to education, far from increasing community accountability of publicly-funded services, the proposals in the Government’s White paper remove the current democratically accountable structure of local education authorities (LEAs) as providers and replace this with a model of local authorities as commissioners of so called independent trust schools. Who does this ‘devolve’ power to?
The "external partners" or trusts that are to run the new independent state schools can appoint a majority to the board of governors, allowing them to own the buildings, appoint the headteacher and senior management team, control admissions and decide the school's ethos. In rural areas the “choice” agenda is irrelevant. It’s in urban areas where competition between schools is most active. Here parents already face a confusing array of admissions criteria that benefit those with the most time and ability to decipher them and the money to move near to perceived good schools. If we allow the handover of more of our schools to unelected private bodies, the resulting plethora of free-floating institutions will lead to justifiable confusion amongst parents about where accountability lies.
Even the Audit Commission warn that the White Paper does not promote the checks and balances necessary to secure equity of access and treatment of parents and children. “Inevitably, one parent’s ability to exercise choice potentially denies another’s” says the Commission. Quite!
The all party Joint Human Rights Select Committee is also concerned that trust schools could create an education system that offers children and parents no direct protection under human rights law. The Committee suggests that the Human Rights Act might not apply to the proposed trust schools meaning that, for example the right of access to education may not be ensured. Children with special educational needs may be denied a place at the most suitable school and trust schools' freedom over their curricula could conflict with the right not to be indoctrinated.
One justification the Government gives for the creation of trust schools is that the appointed governors would bring in ‘external expertise and energy’. But what evidence do the Government have that their quasi-market structure will raise standards? The Education and Skills Select Committee Report into the Education White Paper concluded that “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.”
And what of the ‘concessions’ we’ve heard so much about?
Though the Government is now saying that, with the permission of the Secretary of State (so much for Miliband’s rhetoric!), LEAs will be allowed to enter into a competition with other would-be providers of new schools, no movement has been indicated on the basic proposal to create trust schools. The concession on the Admissions Code requiring admissions’ authorities to act ‘in accordance’ with it, rather than just to ‘have regard’ to it may not be all it’s cracked up to be. This will depend on what’s actually in the Code of Practice and how it is enforced. If the Code still allows selection by “aptitude” and discrimination by “faith” and does nothing to ensure a mixed ability intake then the current social divisions between schools will be perpetuated. Recent research from the Sutton Trust into the social make-up of top comprehensive schools found that those that had control into their own admissions, as would still be the case for trust schools, were unrepresentative of their local communities. Shouldn’t the task fof achieving a fair intake for all schools be given to the LEA, an independent body accountable to local communities, not to an unelected quango?
Then there is the question of the grammar schools. The retention of the 11+ in Birmingham and other LEAs means we have no truly comprehensive schools. Apparently all political parties now agree that the 11+ belongs to a past era, so why is our “bold” Government not acting to remove this anomaly?
Another bold idea for securing a better social mix in our schools, suggested by Tim Brighouse, London Schools Commissioner (and former head of Birmingham LEA), would be 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 assist those who need most help as well as those who are going to ‘deliver’ high league table results.
At the time of writing we still don’t know exactly what will be in the Bill that follows the White Paper. What is clear is that, unless the policy that hands over control of our primary and secondary schools to business, religious and external educational groups is dropped, it will be very difficult for many MPs to support the proposals.
I wrote the following article for Socialist Campaign Group News Nov/Dec 2005
EDUCATION WHITE PAPER
Lynne Jones MP, November 2005
It is ironic that the Government’s White Paper is called ‘Higher Standards, Better Schools for All’ given it is based on the inoperable and essentially inequitable (without expensive surplus provision) dogma of ‘choice of provider’ as a driver for standards in secondary education. Parents and students don’t really want the stress of choosing between institutions, the real choices they want are for a wide range of well taught courses in a variety of subjects both academic and vocational with excellent facilities and good standards of behaviour at a school within easy travelling distance.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that the wholly misleading idea of choice of provider in essential public services is a Tory concept, epitomised by their proposals in their 1992 Education White Paper: "Choice & Diversity: A New Framework for Schools" which extended the market place initiatives begun by Margaret Thatcher in 1988. Tony Blair says his ‘choice’ proposals will help children from low income families whilst at the same time conspicuously failing to answer the criticisms the Tories first failed to answer: who ends up using the less desirable services when the most desired schools fill up? It is simply not practicable to expand popular schools and close down or rebuild so-called failing schools. Size does matter.
To a great extent, through local management which has been a great success, schools are already self–governing but if you ask head teachers, they will tell you how much they still value the accountable support they receive from their Local Education Authority. ‘Quangoisation’ of the powers of LEAs was not in the Labour Party manifesto. The manifesto only dared a hint at this proposal: “Local authorities have a vital role in championing the parent interest and providing support services”. The section which makes reference to "independent" specialist schools merely talks about "a strong ethos" but says nothing about the Government’s plans to neuter the role of LEAs. Ministers cannot fall back on the manifesto but will have to respond to concerns about the policy detail.
Evidence-based policy should lead ministers to look at the success of comprehensive systems such as that in Finland which did exceptionally well in PISA (the OECD programme for student assessment). Finland has a system of comprehensive, non-selective basic education and the teaching profession is highly respected and teachers given trust and a lot of autonomy. They have no testing or ranking lists and a co-operative way of working in contrast to the competitive market doctrine of the Government’s White Paper.
The Government wants every school to become a specialist school because they argue that these schools have achieved better results. However, no evidence has been provided to demonstrate it is the specialism, as opposed to the additional funding and ability to select, that drives the success of these schools. The extra money they get, a grant of £100,000 and an extra £126 per pupil for four years, creates a two-tier education system, made up of specialist schools with extra funding and non-specialist schools that cannot benefit from any extra money. Like selection on other grounds, encouraging children to specialise at such a young age is in itself, questionable.
The Government suggests that power should be given to parents, giving the example of the right to ask for new schools to ‘tackle entrenched inequalities’. Yet, perversely, in the same sentence we learn that parents’ rights to demand a new school will also be granted ‘to meet a lack of faith provision’. As religious schools discriminate against everyone not of that faith, isn’t this is at odds with equality of opportunity for all? Though all parents put their own children’s interests at the forefront of their consideration, this necessarily has to be put in the context of the ‘choices’ on offer. In the wake of the 9/11 atrocity in New York and the 7/7 bombings in London it is surely in all our interests that all groups in our society feel included and are given every possible opportunity to integrate. We need to have all our children educated in schools that believe concern for others is not a religious virtue, but a human virtue; and where people of all faiths and none are equally respected
We should also closely examine the Government’s claims about the success of academies. The Education Select Committee reported earlier this year that "the rapid expansion of the Academy policy comes at the expense of rigorous evaluation”. Obviously academies have more money and it would be very surprising if they didn’t have higher improvement rates.
The White Paper makes much of the importance of “fair admissions” but the Government has not yet analysed responses to the consultation on the national code on admissions, neither has it proposed any change from the present situation in which schools are only required to “have regard” to it. Furthermore, no action has been taken to deal with the continuation (in many areas) of the 11+. The London Oratory school recently won high court backing for its practice of interviewing pupils in clear breach of the code’s guidance, so the Prime Minister will know that the Adjudicator, which oversees the voluntary code, does not have the teeth to enforce it.
Schools have not asked for these changes and have made it clear that they value the support of LEAs. A large number of Labour MPs are telling the PM they want a comprehensive education policy based on real equality of opportunity, fairness and evidence, not recycled Tory dogma. Isn’t it time he listened?
more on education
other topical issues