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What we think
Keep fighting New Labour's Education Bill
EVER SINCE the controversial Education White Paper was issued in the autumn, speculation has grown that the government could be forced to retreat from their plans to privatise and fragment education. But it's becoming clear that anyone relying on Labour backbenchers to mount a serious fight will be disappointed.
Blair's desire to dismantle the comprehensive system, the core of Labour education policy over decades, certainly provoked unrest amongst Labour MPs. Over 90 of them signed up to a critical statement calling for "consensus". Even Neil Kinnock, the former Party leader heavily responsible for directing Labour along its rightward path, was forced to voice his concerns.
Of course, a genuinely comprehensive system has never been achieved. Britain's divided society has always been replicated in a system that includes private schools alongside state schools of differing status, some still selecting pupils either openly or by stealth.
A lack of adequate resources has also made it even harder for schools supporting working-class communities to counteract the additional challenges facing many pupils.
But, despite both Tory and Labour initiatives to increase "diversity", most schools are still part of an elected local authority that oversees the provision of school places and admissions policies. All that could change if Blair gets his way.
New Labour's neo-liberal ideology pictures free-market competition as the future for local services. That's why the White Paper proposed a deregulated market of independent state-funded schools competing for the pupils that will boost their status and position in school league tables. Schools will be allowed to expand at the expense of their neighbouring rivals. Working-class families will be the losers.
Business and faith groups will be given the power to take over and run Trust schools, building on the existing Academies scheme. This already means, for example, the government spending over £20 million building the King's Academy in Middlesbrough so that its evangelical sponsor, Sir Peter Vardy, can impose a curriculum "consistent with Biblical teaching".
Under pressure, embattled Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, has had to write to MPs setting out "concessions". In response, most of the "rebels" now seem ready to fall into line. It seems likely that Blair and Kelly will shortly be able to steer an Education Bill through Parliament without the embarrassment of having to rely on Tory support.
Yet Kelly's published letter reveals how little has been conceded in reality. "I remain committed to all the freedoms for foundation and trust schools that we set out in the White Paper - schools owning and controlling their own buildings, employing their own staff and setting their admissions arrangements".
She bluntly states that "we are already finding considerable interest from potential trust supporters". It seems the big business vultures are already circling, waiting for their opportunity. What clearer message could there be about who Labour now represents?
Kelly stresses a continuing role for local authorities to placate the fears of Blairite councillors and officials worried about their future careers. But their chief task will simply be to service the market, rather than to plan and control local education. The mantra of councils being "a commissioner, rather than provider, of schools" remains.
School staff will not be so fortunate. Unions need to make clear to their members that the Education Bill won't only fragment schools. New Labour will also use these changes to break up national pay and conditions. School-by-school bargaining, already imposed during the recent introduction of "Teaching and Learning Responsibility" (TLR) payments for teachers, will become the norm.
In some schools, trade union action has succeeded in stopping pay cuts through TLRs. The united strength of public-sector unions will also be vital to withstand New Labour's attacks on public services. Even if the Education Bill is passed into law, strike action, backed by bold community campaigns, must be organised to prevent the privatisation and fragmentation of education.
But those trade unionists will also need a political voice. The White Paper confirms that New Labour has long abandoned the educational principles it defended in the past. The building of a new mass workers' party, filled out and strengthened by those fighting for a decent education and for all our public services, can provide the mighty challenge that Labour's faint-hearted "rebels" can never deliver.
In The Socialist 16 February 2006: