Selection and ‘free market’ threaten our schools

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

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.

Covert selection

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

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.

Campaign needed

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.