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Education White Paper
Selection and 'free market' threaten our schools
TONY BLAIR'S first defeat in parliament over the Terrorism Bill has made many parents, school students, teachers and education workers more confident that they can defeat Labour's latest education White Paper.
MARTIN POWELL-DAVIES of Lewisham National Union of Teachers looks at what New Labour's education policy means and how best to fight it.
THE EDUCATION White Paper threatens a fundamental attack on one of the labour movement's main gains since World War Two - comprehensive education.
New Labour push their plans by appealing to every parent's wishes for their children - to ensure they have a decent education meeting their individual needs and interests, whatever their home circumstances. Of course, a divided system where high status schools can pick and choose pupils at their neighbours' expense can never achieve that. But Blair is proposing precisely to increase those divisions!
New Labour's policy is based on an ideology that sees free-market competition as the key to improving public services. As new Work and Pensions Minister John Hutton told the neo-liberal Brookings Institute in Washington: "We needed to drive greater challenge into the system... opening up these monolithic structures from across the private, voluntary and social enterprise sector".
Whether it's transport or health, housing or education, working-class families know what such a deregulated market means in reality. Privatisation and fragmentation will lead to even greater polarisation between the most popular schools and those caught at the bottom of the league tables.
The White Paper recognises the strong link between educational achievement and class, but, whatever they may claim, Labour aren't interested in educational equality for all. At best, they want to provide some limited access to the lucky few to climb up the educational ladder. But their main drive is to make the best state schools attractive to middle-class pupils. It will be working-class families that will be the main losers.
IT PROPOSES to set up "a system of independent non-fee paying schools". Alongside the privately-sponsored Academies that are already being developed, schools will be encouraged to become "self-governing" "Trust" or "Foundation" schools. Crucially, whatever route is used, each school will "employ their own staff, control their own assets and set their own admissions arrangements".
If this vision of the future is allowed to take hold of education, the result will be an admissions free-for-all. Schools will seek to select pupils whose needs can be met more easily and who are most likely to boost their status and position in school league tables. Once a few schools opt for this route, others will quickly follow for fear of being left behind in the competition.
The plan to allow oversubscribed schools to expand to meet demand has been heavily criticised. Few schools would have the space for more classes but, where they did, neighbouring schools would be plunged further into difficulties as they lost pupils and the funding that comes with them.
Labour will encourage private sponsors and faith groups to set up their own educational "brands", grouping together schools in "Trusts". It's unlikely that companies will find there are large profits to be made, although there is clear evidence of academies paying out substantial amounts for services from companies that just happen to have business links with the school's sponsors.
Despite all Blair's spin about "parent power", Trust and Foundation schools will actually have fewer places for parent governors than existing community schools. Trusts will be allowed to appoint a majority of governors, allowing them to control our children's education.
It will be this opportunity to imprint their ideas and ethos on youth that will attract many sponsors. Already, 21 of the 57 open or planned Academies where a sponsor has been identified are linked to various Christian organisations.
To speed the process, all "new" schools will have to take up one of the "self-governing" options with "competitions" to decide who will take them over. This will include schools forced to close and reopen under the harsh OFSTED inspection regime and, apparently, schools being rebuilt under the government's 'Building Schools for the Future' programme.
There is already plenty of evidence of schools using covert and overt selection to ensure they have a more privileged pupil intake. Recent figures show, for example, that Church of England primary schools admit a far lower than average proportion of pupils from poor backgrounds, perhaps owing to their separate admissions arrangements.
One method of trying to combat selection, still practised across schools in the south London borough of Lewisham, is to "band" pupils according to ability. By dividing pupils amongst local schools according to their banding, in theory a genuine comprehensive intake should be achieved.
The White Paper encourages "fair banding" but with two crucial differences. First of all, Labour drew back from making it compulsory, fearing, in the words of The Economist, "the wrath of vocal middle-class parents". Secondly, schools will be able to set their own bands and recruit over a wide area.
For years, the selective Haberdashers Aske's College in Lewisham operated such a separate banding policy. It meant that many local children were rejected and only a small proportion of pupils were ever taken from the lowest-achieving "band" applying elsewhere in the borough.
Throwing in the sop of free transport for "poorer families" to travel to a school of their choice is no answer. Will this include travel to parents' evenings, after-school events and so on? It will be a further blow to the idea of developing well-resourced neighbourhood schools standing at the centre of the local community.
Such selection can best be combated by ensuring a common admissions policy applying to all schools and by making sure that all schools are part of a democratically elected Local Education Authority (LEA). But the White Paper further marginalises LEAs turning them "from provider to commissioner". Now their role will be to champion "choice and diversity".
But some of the anger against these proposals stems from the fact that, for some council officers, this will be like "turkeys voting for Christmas". Once schools are independent of local control, funding for the vestiges of the LEA - together with all the essential central services to support the pupils with greatest needs - will be under threat.
The fragmentation is also a threat to staff and their union organisation, hastening the move towards the break-up of clear national pay and conditions. Schools are encouraged to make further savings through "workforce reform", replacing qualified teachers with cheaper staff.
A ROSY picture is presented of well-funded schools where teacher recruitment difficulties have become a thing of the past. In fact, a majority of teacher trainees are still being driven out by the pressures of teaching after three years in the job. Class sizes in the UK remain some of the highest of any of the economically developed countries.
While such underfunding continues, the White Paper's talk of "personalised learning" is just an empty slogan. Instead, some pupils will be protected through the expectation of more "setting and streaming" in schools. Recent DfES-sponsored research shows there is little evidence that setting produces better results than mixed-ability teaching overall.
However, setting can help the highest-achieving pupils while lower-achieving pupils do better in mixed-ability classes. Whatever methods are used, the vital ingredient is to have sufficient resources to meet every child's needs, rather than a system where adequate support is rationed to the chosen few.
The White Paper has upset even Cabinet members such as John Prescott. They can still dimly recall how most working-class youth were thrown into second-class secondary moderns by selection and the 11-plus. But neither Prescott nor former public school pupils like Blair or Education Minister Ruth Kelly have any alternative for working-class people.
Blair's defeat in Parliament has raised confidence that ministers could also face defeat over education. But the establishment political parties support the capitalist ideology that underlies these proposals.
Only a vociferous and united campaign of parents, school students, staff and unions can put the politicians under enough pressure to make them think again. It's a battle that we have to win - the future of our children's education is at stake.
In The Socialist 17 November 2005: