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Last Updated: Sunday, 26 February 2006, 11:18 GMT
Education reform
On Sunday 26 February 2006 Andrew Marr interviewed Ruth Kelly, Secretary of State for Education and Skills

Please note "BBC Sunday AM" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

Ruth Kelly MP
Ruth Kelly, Secretary of State for Education and Skills

ANDREW MARR: Well let's move from a writer's future to a politician's future.

The Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, has been dividing Labour rebels ahead of a crunch vote this week on school reforms.

It's all about schools' selection of pupils and in the end where real power lies in the future of state schooling.

But the concessions made so far, will they be enough to save what Tony Blair regards as his most important current reform Ruth Kelly joins me now - welcome Ruth Kelly.

RUTH KELLY: Thank you.

ANDREW MARR: As a result of the bill, which we will see in the coming week, is there going to be more selection in schools or less selection?

RUTH KELLY: Well what we're doing is making the framework, within which schools operate, more robust - and I think that's a perfectly reasonable thing and a good thing to do.

Because as we go down the route of empowering schools to take more decisions for themselves, enabling teachers and head teachers to make links with external partners, with other schools in order to drive up standards for all pupils, there was a fear that schools would use some of their new freedoms in order to try and manipulate their intake.

Now I've always been completely adamant that that is something that we, that I, the government, would not tolerate.

ANDREW MARR: But it's, it's a fairly straightforward question in a sense, that you must hope that as a result of this bill there will either be more selection or less selection.

RUTH KELLY: Well actually I think what will happen is that there will be more coordinated admissions between schools, with schools in the first place -

ANDREW MARR: Does that mean less selection by schools?

RUTH KELLY: Well if you're - if you're talking about selection -

ANDREW MARR: Because there is selection at the moment.

RUTH KELLY: If you're talking about selection by academic ability, we've been completely clear, there can be no new selection by academic ability. And in order to make that clear to everybody, so that everybody knows there's a clear and transparent system and a robust system, we're going to write that onto the face of the bill.

ANDREW MARR: So you are, you are going to put it on the statute -

RUTH KELLY: On statute.

ANDREW MARR: - that there must not be selection by interview or by examination.

RUTH KELLY: That's absolutely right. No new selection.

ANDREW MARR: Now you said no new selection, does that mean that schools which in effect select at the moment by interviewing parents, that will be able to carry on doing that?

RUTH KELLY: No schools which interview will have to stop interviewing.

ANDREW MARR: So there will be less selection, in fact.

RUTH KELLY: There - there will - well if you, if you say that interviewing is a means of selection -

ANDREW MARR: Yeah.

RUTH KELLY: - at the moment it's used for a variety of technical reasons, to assess faith commitments and so forth, but for those that are worried that interviews can lead to cover up selection, then yes, you're absolutely right, schools will have to stop doing that so that everybody can be absolutely clear that this is a system within which parents are choosing schools and not schools choosing parents.

ANDREW MARR: Now the reason I bang on about it is because when the original proposals were published a lot of people took what Tony Blair was saying to mean that he wanted genuinely independent state schools, able to develop as they wanted, and if at the margins that meant there was a bit more selection, possibly by aptitude or whatever, well that was a price worth paying for a school system that was in deep, deep trouble.

RUTH KELLY: Well no that's never been the intention. It has been the intention, and absolutely rightly, that head teachers are empowered to take the decisions that they need to take to drive up standards for their pupils and indeed to forge the partnerships with other ...

ANDREW MARR: Are they really empowered, because I mean if they can't have any influence whatever over selection, they certainly don't have much influence over what's taught, because of the national curriculum which is pretty widespread; teachers are paid what teachers are paid; you're left with something pretty vague in terms of their real powers.

RUTH KELLY: Well I don't think that's right. If you look at education policy over the last nine years, so since Labour's been in power, what you'll see over that time is progressively, year by year, month by month, the government devolving more power and responsibility to schools. And as a result of that they've been able, for example, to take decisions over the everyday running of their schools; to make links with external partners, so the specialist school programme has come in, two-thirds of schools are now specialist.

ANDREW MARR: The logical outcome of that would be that the local education authorities would sort of wither away a bit in terms of importance. Now I have to ask you, because one of the most controversial areas, has been whether you will retain the power to veto LEAs setting up new state schools, what we would have called in the past comprehensive schools?

RUTH KELLY: Well let's just look at the role of local authorities for a moment - because I know this has been a particularly controversial one. As I was tracing out the development of education policy over the last nine years, what's been happening is that schools have had more devolved powers, local authorities have been starting to carry out a more strategic role. And indeed many of our best local authorities are strategic commissioners of education ...

ANDREW MARR: But there is a power struggle between them, these two forms of power, and it seems to me pretty crucial as to whether you retain a veto -

RUTH KELLY: I'll come on to the veto in just a second -

ANDREW MARR: Yes.

RUTH KELLY: I don't see it as a power struggle, actually - I think it's about decisions being taken at the best, at the place where they're best taken. So if you've got a good head teacher, who really wants to manage their assets in a slightly different way, to forge a link with another school, perhaps a successful school that wants to help drive up standards in a failing school, to link up with a local business or charity in order to improve education both for the children at that school and locally - then that's something they should be able to do. And in fact many of them are starting to do this already, with the help and support of local education authorities.

ANDREW MARR: Right.

RUTH KELLY: So the local education authority becomes the authority that is championing parents and pupils, that is brokering these arrangements and it is helping the support to come in and the external partnerships to be forged. So, so that the point -

ANDREW MARR: Let me return you to the veto though, because that is the crucial issue at the moment.

RUTH KELLY: Well, well what people have - in conversation with my colleagues - what they've come and said is that if a school in the future is going to be set up, and I think it's important to keep this in perspective, and if there are only about 15 new schools, brand new schools last year, out of a total of 24,000 schools, but if a new school is being created, why shouldn't it be the case that if parents want it, and the local authority is providing a perfectly decent education for its children, why shouldn't it be the case that the local authority is able to set up a community school where the local authority still controls the assets and sets the admissions. Now if that's what parents want and the local authority is good, I think it's quite hard actually to make an argument against it.

ANDREW MARR: The point they also make is that you should remove in law that possible veto - a) because it sounds to some people as if you've still got a kind of cudgel up your sleeve that you could take out if you wanted and b) these Labour rebels say because one day there may be a Conservative education secretary who would use it quite aggressively - so take it away.

RUTH KELLY: Oh well if there's a Conservative education secretary, of course, it's a completely different education system probably.

But the question for me is have we got the right system. Now we've already made a significant movement by saying in the future when there is a brand new school, local authorities ought to be able to propose a new community school as well as being able to propose a new school with these new devolved powers.

Now that's a significant movement from where we were at the time of the white paper being published. But to make it clear that the competition has to be open and fair, I've also said that the local authority has to come to the Secretary of State and make a case in order to be able to put a new community school into the competition. That's quite a technical point, but I think quite an important one, because the local authority therefore has to think through what -

ANDREW MARR: Can you then say no, actually - you can't.

RUTH KELLY: Well I have made it very clear to everybody that if the local authority does put a good case forward, if they are a good education authority and they put forward a school which is likely to command the consent of parents, then of course I wouldn't intervene. But what I don't want is for local authorities just to be sitting there, and as the default position, just -

ANDREW MARR: So some form of veto in the end remains - as a, you know, as your last stop weapon.

RUTH KELLY: Well I think it's important that local authorities do make the case -

ANDREW MARR: ...

RUTH KELLY: - so that's why that provision is there.

ANDREW MARR: It sounds like yes to me.

RUTH KELLY: Well absolutely. Just so that they do think through what is in the best interest of children - because all of this, in the end, is about that.

ANDREW MARR: What would you - how would you regard it if at the end of all of this you got this bill through but you required Conservative votes to get it through?

RUTH KELLY: Well I don't think we're there yet actually -

ANDREW MARR: I know we're not - I'm asking you how you would feel if that's where you ended up.

RUTH KELLY: Well what we - what we must do is have a bill which is in the best interests of the children and I think that the proposals that we've got now, which after all are not just about trust schools, although trust schools is one part of them, but also about vocational education for children, about youth opportunities, about discipline powers etcetera, are a set of proposals that should command the consent of the vast majority ... Labour -

ANDREW MARR: Will you win round the Labour rebels, do you think?

RUTH KELLY: Well I'm very confident that the bill that we're going to publish on Tuesday is a bill which is not only good but will command consent, and a bill that we can unite behind.

ANDREW MARR: I think it would be a failure if you didn't get those people, if you weren't able to bring it through on a Labour vote.

RUTH KELLY: Well it's, it's clearly my task to ensure that we do.

ANDREW MARR: Right.

RUTH KELLY: And I'm not wasting a moment - I'm out there talking to people, talking to them about their concerns, showing how those concerns have been met in the response to the select committee, which we're also publishing in full on Tuesday, and in the bill. And people rightly want to see the bill - it's a very important part of our future programme.

ANDREW MARR: There's reshuffle gossip around, and we both know there's always reshuffle gossip around and it's mostly wrong - but do you expect to stay in your job in the years ahead?

RUTH KELLY: Well these decisions are always ones for the Prime Minister aren't they? But what I can say is that this is a job that I just absolutely relish. If there's a reason why I came into politics, and indeed why the vast majority of my colleagues came into politics, it's because of education.

It's a chance to translate Labour values into action, it's a chance to really make a big difference to the standard of education for children throughout this country, including the most disadvantaged.

ANDREW MARR: And Labour women generally in a bit of trouble, do you think in the Cabinet?

RUTH KELLY: I think Labour women are making a huge contribution to government, and indeed when you see the up and coming generation, there are lots of women there too that have lots of talents.

ANDREW MARR: Well this could be a very, very busy week ahead. Thank you very much for joining us.

INTERVIEW ENDS


NB: this transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy


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