Real reform or tinkering with schools?

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor The “Higher Standards, Better Schools For All” White Paper, which has seriously divided both the Labour Party and the Commons Education Select Committee, is one of the worst-written documents of such status that I have read.

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor

The “Higher Standards, Better Schools For All” White Paper, which has seriously divided both the Labour Party and the Commons Education Select Committee, is one of the worst-written documents of such status that I have read.

The Prime Minister's foreword is lucid enough. But the main body of text is opaque and confusing. The first time I dipped into it - when it was published last October - I was quickly bemused, and I have had similar trouble with it ever since. It is not easy to work out what it is trying to achieve. And whatever it is, it argues the case very poorly.

One can conclude that it amounts to little more than glorified tinkering. The Prime Minister's commitment to it says something very different, however. And in the confusion, suspicion has prospered.

There has long been fear in Labour circles - stretching well beyond the 'usual suspects' - that Tony Blair's school reforms would ultimately lead to a restoration of selection by academic ability in secondary schools.

He has denied this time and again. There are, indeed, at least two denials in the White Paper itself. But this has not done the trick. Among the Labour people lining up against him on this issue, there is strongly felt concern that he is trying to achieve by stealth something that he is officially opposed to. It's ironic, given that one of the key words in the White Paper is “Trust”.

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Comprehensive education remains a touchstone issue for many in the Labour Party and the teaching profession. There is continuing resentment that the ideal has never been fully implemented and much last-ditch determination to defend it.

Before Chancellor Gordon Brown's announcement this week that he will be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Mr Blair on this issue - and that he is himself committed to “reform, reform, reform” - it looked as if as many as 100 Labour MPs might be prepared to vote against or abstain on the Bill that will follow the White Paper.

The rebels have been getting encouragement from Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, former Labour leader Neil Kinnock, former Education Secretary Estelle Morris, Tony Benn's daughter Melissa and Fiona Millar (partner of Alastair Campbell and a former Downing Street aide).

At a recent meeting held by the rebels in the Palace of Westminster, Mr Campbell was also present. What did this mean? Was he there just to give moral support to his other half? Or does he actually agree with her?

There is good reason for asking the question because a few years ago Mr Campbell referred to “bog-standard comprehensives” in talking about the Government's resolve to drive up standards in secondary schools.

Isn't the fact that many children - particularly in inner-city areas - are still suffering bog-standard education in secondary schools the main argument for the extra reforms Mr Blair wants?

Mr Prescott recently complained that making schools better would create problems by encouraging parents to apply for places at them. And what sort of argument is that for the status quo?

A strong case for the White Paper comes from seeing who opposes it.

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t School admissions and selection

These two issues are closely related - not least in the minds of Labour opponents of the White Paper.

The document stresses that “there will be no return to the divisive 11-plus”. But many in - and beyond - Labour's ranks are not convinced. They distrust the wording in the White Paper that “we want to ensure that all self-governing schools … are free to use the approach to fair admissions that they think will best suit their local circumstances, as long as it is compatible with the Admissions Code”. And they suspect that schools given greater autonomy would inevitably find back-door or covert methods of selecting pupils by academic ability, and that eventually there would be a system akin to that of grammar schools and secondary moderns.

They want the Admissions Code beefed up to ensure that all schools have to take their share of pupils of all ability levels, and made legally enforceable. They also want local education authorities to have the job of vigorously policing it. But the White Paper says that schools should not have to go through “a complex and bureaucratic process” in determining admissions.

t Trust schools

The White Paper proposes that the freedom of individual schools should be further increased. It argues that all schools should be able to control their assets, employ their own staff and set their own admissions criteria “within the law and taking full account of the Admissions Code”. And it states that “to spread innovation and diversity across the whole school system, we will promote the establishment of self-governing Trust schools”.

Trusts would be “not-for-profit organisations” able to appoint the majority of a school governing body. The governing body of any existing primary or secondary school would be able to create its own Trust. The White Paper says that “there are a wide range of organisations who may wish to establish Trusts in partnership with schools”, and that Trusts may be formed by neighbourhood groups or local parents with a keen interest in the success of a school.

Labour rebels and others are worried that the proposals would promote competition rather than co-operation between schools and that there would be less public accountability. They are also concerned that businesses and faith groups would secure greater influence in education.

t Local education authorities

LEAs have lost much of their power over schools in the past 20 years, and the White Paper proposes that process be taken further. It states that “the role of the local authority will change from provider to commissioner” and continues: “as a part of their wider responsibilities for children and young people, local authorities will be expected to become the champions of pupils and parents, commissioning rather than providing education”. There would be a new duty “to promote choice, diversity and fair access to school places and school transport, and new powers to act decisively where schools are failing and underperforming”.

Hostile critics of the proposals want greatly to harden the reference to “fair access to school places” and to ensure that LEAs can exercise a firm policing role and keep a generally strong strategic influence.