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Last Updated: Sunday, 5 February 2006, 10:27 GMT
Head to head: Schools White Paper
The political to-ing and fro-ing over the merits of the government's plans for England's schools continues.

Here, the schools minister and an outspoken backbench critic set out their viewpoints.

JACQUI SMITH

Jacqui Smith (picture from Partnerships for Schools website)

Given some of the things that have been written and said, you could be forgiven for thinking there is disagreement about the biggest challenge we face in education between those who have doubts about parts of the Education White Paper and those of us who do not.

There is not. We all strongly agree that it is breaking the link between poverty and underachievement at school.

It is vital we keep sight of this big picture as the debate unfolds. Let us not reduce the White Paper to an overly technical debate about the ins and outs of "trust schools". Yes, there are details to work out and we will continue to explain and discuss our proposals with colleagues.

But we must remember that despite the real progress schools have made over the last eight years, nearly 75% of pupils entitled to free school meals (the poorest children) still do not get five or more good GCSEs. This is something we have to change.

And we will only change this by ensuring that every school is a school that parents are happy to send their children to.

Not one where success is determined by intake, but where it is determined purely by the quality of leadership and the quality of teaching and learning. And where every child gets the support and encouragement they need to succeed in life.

Tackling poor standards

The bulk of our proposals in the White Paper have broad support. The vast majority of teachers, school leaders and parents believe teachers should have unambiguous rights when it comes to tackling poor behaviour.

It is common sense, too, that if we want to raise standards, teachers need more flexibility to personalise learning according to the needs of their pupils - another key part of our reforms. But I recognise that there are areas we need to explain better, especially when it comes to trust schools.

I want to make it absolutely clear that our proposals are about tackling poor standards and making sure the most disadvantaged children get to access the best our education system has to offer.

Trust schools are not a leap in the dark or a change in direction. They build on what we have learnt in the last eight years and crucially what we have seen working well, particularly in deprived areas.

By empowering schools to formalise relationships with local partners, trusts will help schools use the energy and talent in their communities - in voluntary groups, charities, universities and in business foundations - to raise standards.

Giving teachers the freedoms and support they need to develop high quality teaching and learning approaches that meet the needs of every pupil.

And ensuring schools have the flexibility and active encouragement to deliver learning differently according to the needs of the pupils they serve.

We know this approach will work because our proposals are based on a proven track record.

Innovations

Specialist schools already work with external partners and other schools and the results speak for themselves.

In specialist schools serving our most deprived communities, 46% of pupils got five good GCSEs compared to 36% in non-specialist schools serving similar areas.

Similarly, we have seen that schools that federate with weaker schools can have a huge impact on achievement.

Our proposals for trust schools are our commitment to high standards and high expectations for each and every child
Jacqui Smith
Two years ago, Thomas Telford school formed a three year federation with Madeley Court school, the worst performing school in Telford. After only one year, the number of pupils getting five good GCSEs rose from 22% to 55%.

And Academies, working with external partners and developing an individual ethos to meet the needs of their communities, are improving at three times the national average.

It makes sense for more schools to benefit from these innovations.

But I want to make it clear that we are not imposing trusts on schools.

No school will be forced to accept a trust, although where a school is failing, a trust would be one option for the local authority to consider.

Our proposals are about giving schools more freedom, not about taking their autonomy away.

Similarly, we will not dictate to schools what their trust must look like. One of the main benefits of trusts will be that they will enable schools to work with a range of partners to develop a distinct ethos that will meet the needs of their local community.

But it is up to schools, working with parents, external partners and the local authority, to determine what this means in practice.

Like Thorpe Bay School in Southend, which, under the excellent leadership of head teacher Jean Alder, has recently emerged from special measures.

Along with Southend local authority and Prospects College (a leading provider of vocational education), the school is currently considering the trust model as the next step to drive up standards.

By working with a local partner such as Prospects College, Thorpe Bay will also be able to offer leading edge vocational provision, as well as more traditional academic studies, broadening choice for pupils and developing an ethos that meets the needs of parents and the local community.

Or Monkseaton School, which announced last week that it would like to form a trust to consolidate its existing successful partnership with the Open University and Microsoft. This will enable the college to support the use of higher education modules in secondary education, not only in Monkseaton School, but in other schools across the country.

Experience the best

Our proposals for trust schools are our commitment to high standards and high expectations for each and every child.

If we want to break the link between poverty and underachievement, then excellent results and high expectations must come as standard in every school.

Pioneering schools, heads and teachers have shown us over the past eight years how we can make this happen.

The challenge now is to ensure that every pupil gets to experience the best our education system has to offer.

DAVID CHAYTOR

David Chaytor MP

The education system in England is now widely recognised as a success.

That's the first sentence of the first chapter of the Education White Paper. Most of the document then describes ways of building on this success with policies that have been widely welcomed.

However, some sections of the White Paper are strong on assertion and weak on evidence. They go some way beyond the 2005 election manifesto. They have triggered an exceptional level of opposition amongst Labour MPs.

It isn't because we're against innovation. Most of us, as parents and politicians, have welcomed the innovations of the last few years and are keen to see more. We all support the prime minister's relentless focus on standards, discipline and equality of opportunity.

We're just not convinced that the structural changes proposed provide all the answers. Or even that all of the consequences of a system of "independent state schools" have been fully thought through.

Having worked so hard to improve so much in the last eight years, teachers, support staff, school governors and LEA professionals are now told they can't be trusted to carry on improving without being subject to wholesale opting out.

This sounds dangerously ideological.

'Sorted and segregated'

The government tends to confuse the quality of management with the structure of ownership. A good school needs, above all, a first class head teacher with strong support from a range of professionals.

A good school system needs an agreed framework in which all staff work together to spread best practice.

Shuffling the shareholders, stimulating yet more competition and changing the nameplate on the front door cannot get away from these basic educational facts of life.

The White Paper proposes a structure of independent schools, linked with powerful sponsors, subject to an impotent code of practice on school admissions.

Selection by ethos will become the 11-plus of the 21st century
David Chaytor MP
It does not take a genius to work out that schools, driven entirely by the pressure of league tables, are likely to focus primarily on their own survival. Covert selection will be the order of the day.

Our national aptitude for creating hierarchy from diversity will kick in with a vengeance as the specialisms of the school, coupled with the power of the sponsor, will send strong signals to parents as to whether the "ethos" of the school will be suitable for their child.

Our 11-year-olds will be sifted, sorted and segregated into a multi-tiered set of secondary schools where ethos is increasingly defined by class, faith and ethnicity.

Selection by ethos will become the 11-plus of the 21st century. A free bus pass can provide an escape route for the few but can't guarantee a decent education for the many.

Is all this inevitable? Of course not. Can the White Paper be translated into a workable Bill? I think so.

No level playing field

The government should recognise the distinction between a programme of continuous improvement and a policy of permanent revolution.

Continuous improvement means you have to carry with you the people on whom you rely. Over the last eight years we have launched a series of bewildering initiatives in quick succession - often without evaluating the success of one before moving on to the next.

The government should look more carefully into the real structural problems. Can we honestly be expected to believe that simply privatising the infrastructure (Railtrack) or introducing multiple providers (deregulated buses and directory enquiries) will automatically improve standards?

And the government should recognise the limitations of league tables. Whilst poverty is no excuse for under-performance, pretending that all schools function on a level playing field is barking mad.

The distribution of pupils between schools is far more important than the distribution of schools between providers.

Does anyone seriously think our 200 "top performing" state schools would deliver the same results if they were packed full of the sons and daughters of the underclass? To be blunt, it's the admissions policy, stupid.

There is, however, an alternative. It involves clarifying the nature of trust schools, the future powers of local authorities and the concept of fair admissions.

Perhaps the word "sponsor" is the root of the problem. External partners is much better.

But what exactly will be the criteria for the selection of external partners? Size of cheque book? Degree of religious fervour? Or track record in delivering education?

Whatever the virtues of external partners, it is hard to explain why they should be handed billions of pounds of public assets on a plate in perpetuity.

Revisit admissions

A system of fixed term contracts to improve a number of schools might be more useful. Encouraging more federations to develop education across a whole community would be extremely helpful.

It would make sense to test out the trust concept in areas of particular difficulty before rushing headlong over the cliff edge.

Parents, head teachers and school governors would be more open to persuasion if convinced that it had already worked well elsewhere (and was not only working because of vast dollops of new cash given to a single school).

If local authorities did not exist, it would be necessary to reinvent them. We need to clarify and strengthen the strategic planning powers of local authorities, including their responsibility to coordinate school place planning.

Finally, we need to revisit our admissions policy. We need a policy which recognises that parental choice and institutional selection are incompatible.

Either we let the parents choose the school or we allow the schools to choose the children. We can't have it both ways.

How much longer can we tolerate the daily reality of children locked out from the school at the end of their street because they can't display the right aptitude, the right degree of ability or because they don't share the right ethos?

Our secondary school system is contaminated with partial selection, aptitude selection, 11-plus testing, interviewing, structured discussions and all the paraphernalia of social segregation by which generations of children have been taught to know their place by the age of 11.

David Cameron's abject capitulation on secondary selection provides the perfect moment for a Labour government to demonstrate the intellectual confidence needed to dismantle this dysfunctional legacy.

Trust schools, local authorities, admissions policies: these are the key areas the government needs to work on to keep its supporters on board. Never before has it been more important for the prime minister to listen carefully to his critical friends.



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