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Last Updated: Friday, 18 November 2005, 16:58 GMT
Why school reforms were re-sold
By Mike Baker
BBC News education correspondent

mike baker graphic
How did the government get into this pickle over its education reforms? For a pickle it undoubtedly is.

Why else would they be re-launching the White Paper proposals in a flurry of ministerial activity less than four weeks after publication?

After all, it is not as if the original launch was underpowered.

In fact, as I wrote at the time, it was a multiple launch, with a stream of pre-announcements, Prime Ministerial speeches, ministerial photo-calls in the kitchen of south London parents, as well as the more traditional statement in the House of Commons.

Despite all this (and maybe because of it) ministers believe that their proposals have been misunderstood.

They are partly right. They were not helped by the seepage of pre-announcement newspaper stories that, wrongly, suggested that pupils would be compulsorily bussed across town to schools and that all schools would use entrance tests to "band" pupils by ability for admissions purposes.

None of this proved correct but the perception lingered.

Misunderstood

However, even four weeks after publication of the school reforms, disentangling fact, fears, and fiction has become increasingly difficult.

The Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, genuinely believes that her intentions have been misunderstood.

They have. Yet it is not just the government's intentions that normally loyal Labour MPs are worried about, it is also the unintended consequences of the reforms that worry them

For the difficulty that MPs and teachers have with the proposed schools reforms is not so much deciding whether they agree with them or not, as working out exactly where they will take the school system.

Some in Downing Street wanted the trust schools idea to go much further; they hoped the for-profit sector would be allowed to run state-funded trust schools
Mike Baker, Education Correspondent

That is partly because there is no clear government vision. Nor can there be, when the heart of the philosophy is to set schools free, as independent autonomous bodies, each seeking the distinctive role that seems right for them.

Instead of an over-arching vision, this is a policy of allowing a thousand flowers to bloom.

A long line of Downing Street education advisors (from Sir Michael Barber and Lord Adonis to Conor Ryan and Sir Cyril Taylor) have argued that schools thrive when they develop their own particular ethos, manage their own affairs, and are free from the stifling hand of public sector bureaucracy.

Thus the model has been the independent school. However, as we know, independent schools select their pupils by academic ability, compete with each other, (the Office for Fair Trading inquiry into fees notwithstanding), and are not required to consider the wider community.

These are the very qualities that many Labour MPs fear will be incorporated into the state system.

So, while there is nothing to suggest that Ruth Kelly wants either academic selection or competition between schools, some Labour MPs fear that is where the reforms will lead.

The government's response to the charge that their reforms lack vision is to say that the direction will come from putting "parents in the driving seat".

Tony Blair
The Prime Minister said he was restless for education reform

Yet they cannot know where parents will steer the school system. There is no collective voice for parents (although critics of the reforms would say it is given expression via locally-elected education authorities).

Hence the fear of some Labour MPs that a vocal minority of parents will hog the driving seat to the detriment of less articulate or influential passengers.

Articulate parents may use "parent power" to get the school of their choice, even when it is not the nearest, and they may indeed help raise standards in certain schools.

Yet, as this week's renewed troubles of the once-infamous Ridings School demonstrate, it is very difficult to have a successful school when it is surrounded by grammar schools and religious schools that can select pupils on ability or religious faith.

Swedish system

The other difficulty for the White Paper reforms is that they are the result of compromise.

Some in Downing Street wanted the trust schools idea to go much further; they hoped the for-profit sector would be allowed to run state-funded trust schools.

This is the Swedish model: private organisations, including commercial companies, can run schools, which remain free for parents, in exchange for state grants. They have brought innovation, new approaches to schooling, and new choices for parents.

It was very revealing that Tony Blair's foreword to the White Paper extolled the benefits of the Swedish system.

A number of companies were interested in operating a similar model in England. In the end, though, it was decided that the idea was too radical to wash with Labour MPs.

The government vehemently denies that trust schools are the same thing as the grant maintained schools invented by Lady Thatcher's Conservative government

So this left the trust schools idea without its full development.

The freedoms of the trust schools made sense if they were to attract private companies to take them over. The private sector would not want to have to negotiate daily with local education authorities.

But once that approach was ruled out, the new freedoms of trust schools did not look very different from the freedoms at specialist or foundation schools.

Indeed, the majority of secondary schools are already specialist colleges. As such they have sponsors, who put in extra funding and influence their ethos.

All schools already have control over their budgets as local authorities are required to pass on the vast majority of the education budget to head teachers.

Schools that want to go the extra step towards owning their assets and controlling admissions can already do so by the simple process of becoming a foundation school.

All of this leaves secondary school leaders, in the shape of the Secondary Heads Association, asking why anyone would want to become a trust school.

The government vehemently denies that trust schools are the same thing as the grant maintained schools invented by Lady Thatcher's Conservative government.

They have a point: grant maintained schools received preferential funding, were able to become more selective, and could become totally separate from local education authorities.

Why?

Trust schools, by contrast, will get no extra money, must abide by the same code of practice on admissions as other schools, and will still be monitored by LEAs.

At which point, again, school leaders say: so what is the point of them?

In fact, there is little desire amongst schools to become either more selective or to compete with their neighbours. Most state school head teachers just do not think like that.

When the Conservatives created grant maintained schools they attracted only a relatively small number of early converts. Most of these were grammar schools wishing to preserve their selective status or were schools that had been at loggerheads with their local councils, which in those days did control school budgets.

Large numbers of grant maintained schools were only achieved by offering heavy financial inducements to opt-out of council control.

So critics of the reforms ask this: why, if there is so little enthusiasm amongst schools for trust status, does the government insist on forging ahead, when most of the aims can be achieved through specialist status or foundation status?

Moreover they want to know why - when other reforms such as specialist schools, the numeracy and literacy hour, and extra money for head teachers are still working their way through the system - the government wants to shake-up the system once again?




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