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Latest reforms have been stalled further as rebel MPs set out a suite of compromise moves in an attempt to diffuse the areas provoking greatest dissent.

As CMU went to press, the Education Bill had been delayed for publication as attempts were underway to resolve the disputes before it went through Parliament, now put back until March. Many believe that if the Bill fails to go through smoothly, it will quicken the departure of Tony Blair as Prime Minister. Meanwhile, the House of Commons Education Select Committee published its response to the White Paper, Higher standards, better schools for all, on which the Bill is based, outlining changes it would like made to make the reforms more palatable.

Issues at issue The need for reform cannot be disputed, believe the Committee’s members: ‘It is unacceptable for 13% of children in England to be taught in poorly performing schools’. But it is the form that these reforms take that is at issue. There is no evidence that a school working independently from the LEA is assured success, believe the Committee members. They also downplayed the role of school structure in determining success. ‘The form of governance of a school is less significant in determining the attainment of its pupils than the nature of its pupil intake and the quality of teaching and leadership,’ says its report. There is also no case for further setting, says the Committee – the Government has pledged to commission independent research into current best practice to inform its decision-making on this key issue.

Commenting on the proposals to create a new type of school via Trust status, the Committee said: ‘By taking one type of foundation school and giving it a new name and a high profile, the Government has managed to make a cause célèbre out of something which already exists and for which no further legislation is apparently necessary.’ It recommends that the model of a federation of two or more schools be the preferred option for the development of the Trust school concept.

Access concerns As for priorities, fair access should be of top concern, followed by choice and diversity respectively, believes the Committee. To help achieve this, it wants a new duty to be placed on all schools to promote social inclusion and community cohesion through all of their institutional policies and procedures, including their admissions policies. It also wants local authorities to monitor the performance of all schools to ensure they operate a fair admissions policy in practice. The committee is concerned that if more schools act as their own admissions authorities they will use that power to choose more able pupils. Some schools are already using over-subscription criteria to mould the nature of their intakes to maximise the number of ‘easy to teach’ students, and closing the door to more of the disadvantaged pupils.

It has called for a ban on interviewing parents and students for places – what the rebel MPs see as being a method of ‘back-door’ selection that reinforces middle-class privilege. Although this practice is currently against the Code of Practice, because this is guidance rather than mandatory policy, schools are effectively able to get away with it. NASUWT General Secretary Chris Keates welcomed this proposal from the committee to outlaw what the union sees as ‘divisive and invidious practice’. The Committee also wants local authorities to be responsible for setting benchmarks for the number of ‘disadvantaged’ students each of their secondary schools should admit to Year 7 each year, letting the Schools Commissioner know the social composition of its schools each year. The commissioner should then be given powers to bring sanctions against those authorities that failed to address any areas of inequality in school intakes. Other key recommendations of the Select Committee are set out in the box right.

Kelly’s response In an informal response to the report, Education Secretary Ruth Kelly wrote to the Select Committee Chair Barry Sheerman stating that she remained committed to all the freedoms allocated to Trust schools that the White Paper sets out – including being able to set their own admission arrangements. But she did emphasise that the Government will firm up the admissions code in law so that ‘no Trust school or any other maintained school can undertake any further selection by academic ability’. Giving schools the flexibility to develop the most appropriate governance arrangement for their pupils is the essence of the reform, she stressed. ‘Enabling schools to benefit from a Trust is at the heart of our proposals.’

As for the local authority role, she emphasised that rather than give them increased powers to secure fair admissions, the Government believed that the best way to secure more equality of access was via the existing admissions forums. She also made it clear that the Government was against letting forums set quotas for different types of student. But she continued to stress that the reforms were designed to serve the disadvantaged not hinder them. She acknowledged that action needed to be taken to prevent the more advantaged from having better opportunities to access the school of their choice. ‘There is clearly a problem in the current situation which is that the middle classes can manipulate the system and buy houses near to high performing schools,’ she said.

On the other hand, she stressed that the White Paper’s provision for allowing schools to expand will stand. What measures will be built in to ensure that these schools do not just provide for the more able, but allow equal access remain to be seen.

Advantages for black community Conversely, one of the key spokespeople for ethnic minorities gave their support to the reforms, saying how they would prevent schools becoming ‘ghettoised’. Trevor Phillips, Head of the Commission for Racial Equality, (CRE) said the Trust school system could provide the means to increase black community involvement in the school system and stem underachievement among black students. He was keen that the Government’s ‘internal division and bungled presentation’ would not detract from the potential of the plans to deliver what ethnic minority students need.

So it seems that there is misunderstanding in the wording and in the perceived benefits and disadvantages of the reforms as currently tabled. One thing that does seem certain is that the dispute will rumble on still further before any resolution is reached that will see it passed into the statute books.

‘The education debate has degenerated into a political game,’ said NAHT General Secretary Mick Brookes. ‘This is not so much a battle over vision and reform as a battle for survival of a Government that has clearly lost its way with its keynote policy.’

To choose or not to choose, that is the question

As debate continued about whether or not the White Paper reforms would improve or reduce chances for the disadvantaged, current research has stated that poorer families would only be given more choice if popular schools are allowed to expand and transport costs are more widely subsidised. Bristol University’s Centre for Market and Public Organisation (CMPO) has said that under the current system disadvantaged families miss out, ending up at the poorer-performing schools. ‘Poorer families’ lose out but researcher Simon Burgess said that as things stand at the moment, while Trust schools allow expansion, they also give greater scope for selection. Because middle-class families are better able to afford private tuition for admission tests, poorer families will continue to lose out.

He also pointed out that schools may be reluctant to expand if league tables continue to depend on the attainment of their intake: ‘Schools may be unwilling to increase and potentially to dilute the quality of their student body.’

At the root of this conundrum is what makes a good school good. ‘If it is mostly attributes that can be readily extended (such as leadership and ethos), then increasing entry should not be a major problem; if it is attributes inherent in the intake (such as the ability of peer groups) then this policy is more problematic,’ said Mr Burgess, Professor of Economics and Director of CMPO. Mr Burgess has provided background analysis for the White Paper and gave evidence to the Education Select Committee.

‘Choice of school fails to raise standards’ Other research has flagged up the potential destructive effect of more choice and competition, saying it is not a guaranteed way to raise standards. A study by the London School of Economics (LSE), and commissioned by the Government, has been welcomed by critics of the White Paper. Competition, choice and pupil achievement by Stephen Gibbons, Stephen Machin and Olmo Silva found that pupils with a wider choice of schools in their area perform no better than those with limited choice. ‘Competition pressures only seem to work in specific sub-sets of the primary schools markets,’ said Dr Silva. Commenting on the study’s findings, NUT General Secretary Steve Sinnott said: ‘To deal with the problems that some schools face they need support and help, and not competition — which can only undermine their position.’ ‘Top comps are selective’

Meanwhile, another new study found that the top-performing comprehensive schools in the country were also ones that were being socially selective, with a lower proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. In the top 200 schools, just 5.6% of students qualified for free school meals, where the national average is 14.3%, found the study by the Sutton Trust. Comprehensive schools responsible for their own admissions were more likely to be in the top-performing group, and have intakes that were unrepresentative of their catchment area. ‘These findings starkly underline the extent of the social divide in our education system,’ said Sutton Trust Chair Sir Peter Lampl.

Adding their voice to the White Paper debate, the Sutton Trust said: ‘We believe that LEA schools should be responsible for their own admissions, so as to put all schools on an equal footing, but that admissions should be underpinned by a fair and robust Code of Practice which is rigorously enforced.’

For more details of the CMPO research, see: www.bris.ac.uk/ Depts/CMPO. For more details of the LSE study, see: www.lse.ac.uk.

For more details of the Sutton Trust study, see: www.suttontrust.com.

Must do better, says Select Committee

Areas the Select Committee MPs want to see more action on from the Government include to:

  • take seriously the problem of the under-representation of minority ethnic groups in the gifted and talented programme to ensure that implementation of its policy does guard against stereotypes and unintended consequences
  • make it clearer exactly what process is involved in becoming a Trust school
  • provide greater safeguards on the transfer of assets to Trusts
  • publish a list of bodies it considers appropriate to act as Trust sponsors
  • legislate to ensure Trusts do operate in a collaborative fashion
  • look at introducing anonymised admissions to secure a fairer system of allocating places
  • when a competition for a new school is held, give local authorities the right to put forward a proposal for a new community school.

Download the report: here.

This article first appeared in Curriculum Management Update – Mar 2006

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