Education Feb 10 2011

Time for the Lib Dems to step up to the plate on schools plan

Link to original article in Guardian Education

It is almost exactly five years since the last Labour government introduced its controversial Education and Inspections Bill. It followed a highly contested White Paper which promised to create a system of independent non fee paying schools. Companies, faith groups, charities and parents were going to set up and run these new institutions with a much reduced role for local authorities. Sound familiar?

Before the Bill was even published over a hundred Labour MPs had threatened to rebel, they drew up their own ‘alternative White Paper’ and eventually ground a number of concessions out of a reluctant Prime Minister who once described the process as’ hell’.

As a small bit part player in the process, I am still proud of the pamphlet I co-authored at the time with fellow campaigner Melissa Benn, about the future of comprehensive education. We helped to focus attention on what thousands of schools, with responsibility for controlling their own admissions, might mean for parents and pupils, especially the least well off.

By the time the Bill appeared, local authorities had rightly regained some rights to propose new schools,  the role of the schools adjudicator and local admissions forums had been strengthened and schools were required to act ‘in accordance’ with the admissions code, rather than simply to ‘have regard’ to it. Even then it only passed into law with the support of Conservative MPs

It now seems we are destined to celebrate the fifth anniversary of that piece of legislation rehearsing many of the same arguments. The latest Education Bill receives its second reading today and will effectively repeal many of the concessions wrung out of the Blair government.

If a new school is needed, academy/free school bids must be prioritised before any other type of school can be considered, the Secretary of State will decide who runs it, local authorities are frozen out of the process and new maintained schools will be almost impossible to achieve.

The government is also to give itself powers to transfer land directly to free schools, the requirement for locally established admissions forums is to be ditched, at a time when there may be an explosion of autonomous schools, the Schools Adjudicator will no longer be able to require schools to change illegal entry criteria and parents will no long be able to complain to the local government ombudsman.

Translated into everyday life these changes mean that, far from having choice, parents will have a very limited menu; an academy, or an academy called a free school; no say in who runs it; no local scrutiny of how it manipulates its admissions and no meaningful role for the local authority in planning places to meet local needs.

In a sense it is encouraging that the take up of academies and free schools has been so sluggish that the financial carrot has now been replaced by a big stick. But these clauses, alongside the changes to the teaching workforce, and the curriculum, represent a massive power, and land, grab away from local communities and to central government, for which there is no mandate.

Tony Blair did at least win the 2005 general election, even if he didn’t mention his plans for schools in his manifesto. The Tories haven’t won an election since 1992, they are being propped up by a party which wooed thousands of floating teachers, governors and parents with promises about fairness, devolution of power and local accountability but which has gone curiously silent in an area where its policies once commanded respect.

The Bill will give Andy Burnham, Shadow Education Secretary, the chance to define himself on some key issues not least the role of local authorities in a modern education system and how we ensure fairness in resourcing, planning and school admissions.

The big question is whether the Liberal Democrats will now step up to the plate, to try re-gain credibility on policies they once called their own. We keep hearing about their new plan to define themselves in opposition to the Conservatives within the Coalition. I can’t think of a better opportunity than this Education Bill to put that New Year resolution into practice.

Leave a Reply