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 Bills 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 Governments 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
parents ability to exercise choice potentially denies anothers".
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. Whats
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 childs 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 Philips 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 Governments 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
Citys 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
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 (theyre 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 whats 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 dont know what they will be? Then theres 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
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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