Tags: Curriculum Manager | Teaching & Learning Coordinator | Teaching and Learning

Mounting dissent about Government plans to restructure the school system has threatened to prevent the latest education White Paper from going ahead unchanged.

One of the key areas for discontent is the plan to allow schools to take on independent status by becoming a Trust and changes in admission policies that many feel will create a two-tier system, disadvantaging those from less well-off backgrounds. ‘The White Paper’s plans will damage the country’s most fragile and socially deprived communities,’ said NUT General Secretary Steve Sinnott. One of the White Paper’s key aims is to give schools more freedom and independence to innovate by allowing them to determine their own admissions policy, increase the supply of places, choose their curriculum and specialisms. Other core plans for reform are set out in the box below left.

Row over elitism claims Although the Government has been quick to make assurances that the new system will not be a return to the 11-plus, with selection by ability, many are still to be convinced of this. Speaking of the new admissions plans, Margaret Morrissey of the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations said: ‘Allowing schools to control their own admissions just helps them reach their targets and push their results up by excluding the pupils who really need help.’ Education Secretary Ruth Kelly has hit back at criticisms, claiming that Trust schools will work under the same admissions code as schools do now. She has denied that letting schools set their own admissions policy would mean a return to selection by ability. ‘To make it clear that the people who need it most have first access to those schools, we’re going to legislate,’ she said.

Backbencher backlash But Labour backbenchers have so far not been satisfied with clarifications on the key issues of concern, including providing answers as to what extra powers would be given to Trusts, over and above those already held by academies and foundation schools. A 90+-strong group of backbenchers has become so concerned by the White Paper’s content that these MPs have published an alternative version, Shaping the Education Bill – reaching for consensus. A White Paper is generally used to set out the Government’s plans for reform, to canvas views on this before it is then put forward as a Bill to Parliament, which in this case is due to happen some time this month.

The MPs’ alternative includes calling for a statutory code of admissions to stop schools from being able to select only the best pupils – see the box below. They are concerned that setting up Trust schools would mean lack of public accountability for the education they provide. ‘No clear evidence has been presented on the advantages of schools acquiring Trust status,’ they write. The Government needs to look into this change of structure in more detail before deciding whether to go ahead with this reform or not, they urge.

Support not punishment Plans to give local authorities more powers to act on schools that receive a poor inspection report have also provoked concern. This includes being able to change the head, close the school and open a bid for a new provider. If given the green light, such proposals are likely to make recruitment of school leaders even more difficult than now. ‘This level of pressure is difficult enough on experienced heads, but it can be career destroying for young leaders,’ said Dr John Dunford, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), formerly known as SHA. He called for a less heavy-handed approach, one that encourages leaders to innovate in ways that will not necessarily produce instant results, and to support them through such an endeavour rather than sack them at the first hurdle.

Safeguard quality As well as putting the brakes on Trust schools, the Government is also being urged to exercise caution over increasing powers to parents, and private organisations wanting to expand or set up new schools. Many believe that allowing parents who are wealthier and better informed to set up their own schools will further disadvantage pupils from poorer areas. Commenting on the Trust schools plan, NUT General Secretary Steve Sinnott said: ‘Neither parents nor teachers want to see yet another type of school to add to the existing profusion.’ As for allowing in new providers, he added: ‘Nor do they want to see schools under the control of commercial sponsors or individual groups of parents.’

The NUT has set out its own wishlist for ways to make the White Paper more palatable – see the box above for examples. As Mr Sinnott put it: ‘Education is a service for all children and should not be used to meet the narrow needs, interests or prejudices of a rich sponsor, an individual employer or pressure group.’ Many await with interest developments in the coming month, as the White Paper is prepared to be placed before Parliament as an education Bill, to see exactly what changes, if any, will be made. As CMU went to press, Ruth Kelly was sticking to her guns on plans to introduce Trust schools. She noted that there have been misunderstandings among her colleagues about the White Paper, on the more complex areas, but added: ‘We can give the necessary clarifications and reassurance on these points.’

Access the White Paper Higher standards, better schools for all via: www.dfes.gov.uk.

Core reform plans

  • Make local authorities ‘champions’ for good schools, rather than education providers
  • Encourage parents to set up their own schools
  • Appoint a ‘schools commissioner’ and network of advisers to help parents access the school of their choice
  • Provide more help with transport costs for poorer families

Amendments called for by backbenchers

  • Local authorities allowed to ‘refuse or restrain’ the setting up or expansion of schools where it might damage others
  • Local authorities to ‘coordinate’ admissions for all schools
  • Trust schools to be piloted before passing into law
  • No in-built financial or other bias in favour of Trusts and academies and against community schools
  • No role of commissioner, as this duplicates the role of local authorities, and would be unnecessary expensive new bureaucracy

NUT’s reform wishlist

  • A cap on schools’ abilities to expand to prevent damage to neighbouring schools and to ensure efficient use of resources
  • Proposals for establishing new schools and expanding existing ones should be decided by School Organisation Committees — ‘the desires of a part of the community must be balanced against the needs of the whole community rather than allowing one group to hold sway’
  • Curriculum flexibility should not be used as bait to encourage schools to opt for Trust status
  • No school should have the ability to vary teachers’ pay and conditions

This article first appeared in Curriculum Management Update – Feb 2006

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