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Last Updated: Friday, 20 May, 2005, 23:06 GMT 00:06 UK
What are they thinking on schools?
By Mike Baker
BBC News education correspondent

Mike Baker graphic
Today we are going to play the manifesto game. Your starter for 10: identify the political party which made the following promises:

1. "We will allow churches and other faith communities, groups of parents, charitable foundations and companies to set up new schools."

2. "We will give parents the right to call for a special Ofsted inspection if they fear their child's school is failing. If the inspectors confirm their view, the school's management will have to be changed."

OK, your time is up. Hands up all of you who said this was the Labour Party manifesto in 2005. Right, you can all go to the back of the class.

The correct answer is: the Conservative Party manifesto of 2001.

Parent power

However, those who thought it was Labour's promises this time round were not far wrong. Let's see how their latest manifesto commitments compare with the five-year-old Tory plans:

1. "Where new educational providers can help boost standards and opportunities in a locality we will welcome them into the state system."

2. "Ofsted will be given new powers to respond to parental complaints and where necessary to close failing schools or replace failing management."

They are, in short, remarkably similar.

Perhaps we should not be too surprised. In 2001 the Conservative theme was "power to parents" in the form of a Parents' Guarantee. During this election, the mantra of the Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, has also been "parent power".

Recent development

So where have these policies come from? Has Ofsted been pressing for the power to respond to parental complaints and to be appointed both judge and executioner of failing schools? There is no evidence of that.

And when was the new policy thought up? Last summer, when the government published its Five Year Strategy, there was no hint of Ofsted being empowered to close failing schools.

So why does the government want to change the current system where Ofsted identifies failing schools and LEAs (local education authorities) decide whether to close them?

Are ministers frustrated that LEAs are shutting their eyes to the Ofsted evidence?

If so, on what evidence? Recent analysis suggests that failing schools are being closed at the rate of almost one a week.

Privatisation?

So what is behind this new policy? Some in local government believe it is all about creating more openings for private companies to run state-funded schools.

They suspect that, although ministers prefer to talk about churches and voluntary groups opening new schools, the real agenda is letting in operators of chains of private schools, such as Gems or Cognita.

Presumably the government would regard this as responding to parental demand.

If this did happen, it would be remarkably close to the Conservative's 2005 manifesto promise to create a voucher scheme in which parents could get state-funded places at private schools.

Moreover, it could be argued that this system would be even more favourable to the private school companies than the Tory proposal as they would get a free building if they took over from a state school which had been failed by Ofsted.

Critics of the policy also say it gives Ofsted power without responsibility
Supporters of LEAs are outraged that the proposal for parents to trigger inspections implies that local councils, and Ofsted itself, are failing to detect problems.

They want to know what the government means by inspections being triggered by parents with "legitimate concerns". Is that one parent with a grievance, half a dozen mildly annoyed parents swapping moans at the school gate, or one hundred angry parents withdrawing their children from a school?

Critics of the policy also say it gives Ofsted power without responsibility. It would be able to close schools but it would have no duty to ensure there were enough school places in the area.

That responsibility will still lie with the locally-elected council. Yet it will have lost the power to decide which schools should stay open and which should close.

Radical change

A hint of where this policy has come from lies deep in the Five Year Strategy, where it accused some LEAs of being "too defensive or ineffective in the face of low educational standards and high parental dissatisfaction".

Yet the same document said it expected LEAs to recast themselves as the commissioner and quality assurer of educational services, not the direct supplier.

But how do they do this if they are denied a role in determining which schools should close? Surely a "commissioner" should at least have the power to decide who or what to commission.

There have already been hints that, despite its reduced parliamentary majority, the government will press on even more keenly with reform.

The details of the Education Bill, and the further emasculation of local education authorities, certainly suggest there is more radical change to come.

Will that include closing more schools, in the name of parental demand, in order to encourage the use of private school providers?

In the Commons last week, the Conservative leader, Michael Howard, accused the prime minister of stealing Tory policies, including the new emphasis on school discipline.

"We had no idea he was thinking what we're thinking," he taunted.

He might have added that he had no idea the government was now thinking what the Tories had been thinking back in 2001.




SEE ALSO:
Weak school shut every eight days
17 May 05 |  Education
Plan to let Ofsted close schools
13 Apr 05 |  Election 2005


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