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Thursday, 6 September, 2001, 14:27 GMT 15:27 UK
BBC education correspondent Mike Baker quizzed
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Dramatic changes in the shape of secondary education in England have been heralded with the publication of the government's White Paper on education.

More money is to be set aside for specialist and beacon schools, and there could be more private involvement in the state sector - with councils forced to consult "external partners" on how to tackle failing schools.

Other key proposals include an expansion of single faith schools and new powers which would allow the government to "ring fence" the money councils are supposed to spend on education.

Efforts are to be made to get clearer admissions arrangements, and to tackle misbehaviour by pupils.

But what will such changes really mean for those in education in England? Are they being made guinea pigs in yet another round of upheaval? Can our schools keep up with the pace of change?

Mike Baker, BBC education correspondent, answered your questions in a live forum.


Highlights of the interview:


Newshost:

Ross Johnson asks: Why is it that the Government seem so intent on creating more single faith schools? Isn't this a backward step?


Mike Baker:

For the reason why you have to look at Downing Street - Tony Blair has chosen Church schools for his children and he is a man with a strong religious faith. I think they are looking partly at the fact that the Church schools that do exist have been successful - not only in terms of getting good results but there is often a perception that they are better in terms of discipline and in terms of moral education as well.


Newshost:

Is it about standards?


Mike Baker:

It is about standards and it is also about wanting to encourage all schools to have their own particular ethos and that comes out in other parts of the White Paper where they are talking about schools wanting to specialise in particular areas. They think that if a school works towards its strengths it will do well and that is really what this White Paper is intended to do.


Newshost:

Mick in the UK asks: What happens if my child shows a proficiency in say science but all the schools in my area specialise in the arts. Does it mean that we have to move to an area with a science school or put up with sub-standard teaching in the local school?


Mike Baker:

I think that is a very good question from Mick and I think it is a real concern particularly in rural areas where there isn't really a choice of schools. In the cities it's not such a problem because you may be able to move between different schools providing that they have got space. The Government's answer to Mick would be - don't worry, even if it's an arts specialist school it's still going to teach the sciences - and that's true they still have to teach the full national curriculum. What they do in terms of their specialism is an extra - it's on top if you like.

But I think there is a real concern that those schools, if they are specialising in the sciences, say, they are going to attract good teachers because good science teachers want to go where the facilities are going to be good and where there is extra money for their subject. So I think what we will see is by default a specialist science school will become very good at teaching sciences and may not be so good at teaching the arts. So Mick has a very good point which I think the Government hasn't got a answer for, particularly in rural areas.


Newshost:

Let's move on to teacher shortages which is something we have heard about in the last few years. Anna Bailey in Nottingham, UK asks: Since the 1960s talented graduates have been put off teaching because the system itself doesn't really help it. Who wants to teach in a "bog-standard" comprehensive? I can't see how the inducement of an extra few thousand pounds for training teachers is going to disguise the fact that teaching is at present a highly unattractive career? How do you think the Government can attract able graduates it needs to make the system become a success?


Mike Baker:

It is a really big question which this White Paper doesn't really address. The Education Secretary did admit yesterday that if all of these things are to work it needs enough good teachers in schools and at the moment we don't have enough good teachers in schools.

They do have some statistics which do, to some degree, defend the Government's position. There are actually more teachers teaching in schools today than there were 10 years ago. The problem is, schools have got more money as a result of Gordon Brown's handouts therefore they are creating more vacant posts and there is not enough people to fill them.

The other problem is - yes, these bonuses are working to recruit people into teaching. This coming autumn there will be 18% more people going into teacher training than last year which is a pretty big jump. The real problem is that they don't stay. We know that about 40% of teachers either fail to complete their teacher training or they leave within three years. So I think that's what the Government got to do something about. It is the morale of teachers who are already in the profession and who have been in their for some years.


Newshost:

Tony from Manchester, UK asks: Many popular schools are over-subscribed leaving many parents disappointed with the allocation of poorer performing schools. Instead of pumping money into these poorer performing schools, the community would benefit by rapid expansion of the better performing schools.


Mike Baker:

I do sympathise with her position. I have just gone through the whole process with my younger daughter who started secondary school this week. She couldn't for a long time get into the school we wanted because, quite right, popular schools because of league tables, people are more aware of which are the better performing schools, with more and more people trying to get into them - there are more and more cases they are having to say, no, you can't come.

It is a good idea to expand the popular schools - the trouble is, those popular schools often don't want to expand. They say, we're 800 pupils now - if we become a 1,500 pupil school, it won't be the same school - we will lose our ethos.


Newshost:

The success is sometimes to do with the size and the manageability.


Mike Baker:

It is absolutely - it is very often to do with the size. Sometimes it is practicalities - there aren't the buildings for it. But the Government is focusing on trying to improve those poor schools because I think in reality, expanding the good schools is not going to solve the problem. Also the good school aren't always necessarily in the places where you need a school and if the poorly performing school is the only school in that area, you're only option is to make it a better school.


Newshost:

Nick in Belgium asks: What sort of private sector involvement is envisaged? There is also a discussion of take-overs by the more successful schools. What incentives are there for those successful schools to take over the less successful ones?


Mike Baker:

The private sector involvement is something the Government is clearly encouraging and this is going to be the most controversial bit of this White Paper without a doubt. What incentive is there for a school to take over its neighbouring school? It's very hard to see many incentives. There will be a few, very entrepreneurial, very competent head teachers who might like to have a go at it.

What we have seen in Surrey just this week is a privately run school being opened and it is run by a company which is actually an off-shoot of another school. So it is beginning to happen. I don't see it happening in more than a dozen schools by the time of the next election.


Newshost:

Is that a profit or non-profit making company?


Mike Baker:

That one is a non-profit making company and it will feed all its money back into the school. It started out as a city technology college, it has taken over this one in Surrey, it already had another one in Surrey. So you've now got a federation of three schools run by this company - not for profit company but a company nevertheless - and we could be seeing companies in a sense replacing education authorities. But I think it will only ever be a small minority of schools that will go that way.


Newshost:

And perhaps maybe only specialist schools?


Mike Baker:

It's going to be a particular attraction to go for specialist schools. The other thing that would be interesting is if we get for profit companies getting into it - and there are several waiting in the wings and are very interested in it. Of course it has happened in the United States, where a company called Edison runs about 200 schools - they own it and run and do it for a profit. They haven't yet made a profit - that's the key thing. They have floated on the stock market, big investors are putting money into it because they think it is the future but they haven't yet turned a profit.


Newshost:

We have an e-mail from a student, Hope Whitnall from Cumbria in the UK who asks: As a sixth-form student I am very confused about all the changes in the education system that I am noticing at the moment. Have governments always experimented with new ideas in education like they are doing now? Or are these changes more radical than past changes?


Mike Baker:

I am afraid that governments are always changing things particularly in the curriculum area. Estelle Morris says we can't stand still - the world is changing therefore schools have to keep changing. If she is in the second year sixth form and just done AS levels last year, I absolutely sympathise with her because last year's first year sixth have had it rotten all the way through. They were the first ones to do the national curriculum, the first ones to do the tests at 11 and the first ones to do the AS levels - it is very hard doing a new initiative.

AS levels I am afraid, for students who are worried about them, they are here to stay. I think they will get a little bit easier to introduce as schools get more used to it. But there is a real problem now of overload. Our children are now tested at 7, 11, 14, 16 for the GCSE, 17 for the AS and 18 for A levels. I don't think there are many other countries in the world where that much testing goes on.


Newshost:

It is not just pressure for the students but pressure for the teachers as well.


Mike Baker:

Absolutely. It means you're constantly under pressure, you're constantly teaching towards the next test. One of the joys of old first year sixth was that you didn't have big exam coming up at the end of the year. You could read more widely and bring in some other subjects. I think we have become a little "Gradgrind" - a little bit utilitarian in our approach to education. I know having spent a little time looking at schools in the United States that they don't have nearly as many tests - although George Bush is trying to introduce a lot more tests. So they could be about to go the same way as we have gone and they should look carefully and see what can happen if you have too much testing.

See also:

05 Sep 01 | Education
Big changes for secondary schools
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