Opinion: we have our own red lines for schools

I will try and write about the Coalition without any reference to ‘uncharted waters’ or ‘interesting times’. Someone has to.

To begin with I was pleasantly surprised when I read the Culture, Media and Sport sections of the full agreement: more or less what I had wanted but without some of the policies I had criticised in our own manifesto. I can live with the ‘reduction in red tape for live music’ although I still believe we need to concentrate on opportunities for new bands.

My worries are in fact in a different area: academies. I didn’t like this policy before the election and I don’t like it now.

It is difficult to know quite how a coalition partner is supposed to behave in these circumstances: perhaps accept the inevitable but seek safeguards. We will need a lot of these.

I remember the near disaster caused to some communities by the old grant maintained schools policy – stronger schools opting out of the system, introducing selection by the front or back door and even opting out of a common admissions system. Parents were faced with up to five schools to apply to individually, each with their own forms and deadlines, and with little hope of being cleared into a local school in the event of being unsuccessful with their preferences.

The last Government eventually intervened and order was restored.
Michael Gove’s creation of academies (including primary schools for pity’s sake) risks a return to chaos and worse. The original idea behind academies was that they were somehow a solution to the performance of weaker schools: a school could be rebadged, refinanced and refreshed, enabling it to open under a new regime and with the past firmly behind it. As a policy it had its merits.

But the Gove proposals are to fast track the stronger schools who will then make off with their share of the support funding currently allocated to councils. The weaker schools (who really need this support) will wait in limbo, with less support and less prestige. This indeed is the recreation of the two-tier system. Let’s call the non-academies ‘secondary moderns’ and be done with it.

Of course we can demand mitigation. Fancy footwork already seems to have taken place between Gove’s early morning announcement that ‘schools would be freed from local authority control’ (what control? ask councillors) and his letter to council leaders written later that same day saying: ‘Strong local authorities are central to our plans to improve education.’

Was there a row? Did the LGA apply some useful pressure for common sense to return to the Department for Education (no mean achievement even in normal times)?

We can but hope. But we must have our own red lines: no selection; no admissions chaos; and absolutely no abandoning of weaker schools to fund the pretensions of those which are already doing perfectly well out of the current system.

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9 Comments

  • Very well said, that man! I don´t like this Coalition policy either.

    I very much hope that there will be a motion put down for Conference in September, so that we can distance ourselves from this stupid policy of Gove´s.

    Any Conference reps around?

  • Ian Stewart 30th May '10 - 1:32pm

    For those of us who are school governors of “outstanding” schools if there are to be such red lines, they need to be agreed PDQ. Already the process has started. By September the school I have a connection with will have passed the low hurdles that will divorce it from the so-called “dead hand of local councils”.

  • Gareth Epps 30th May '10 - 1:54pm

    I think those of us who are opposed to more Academies should continue to campaign against them, regardless of who is in Government.

  • Iain Sharpe 30th May '10 - 6:22pm

    I gather that academies won’t have to accept students with special needs. So academies will be hailed for their excellent exam results, the remaining LEA schools berated for their poor results, but a significant part of the explanation will not be about the performance of the school but that the rules have been rigged in favour of academies and against LEA schools.

  • Well said, Chris.
    Gove’s presentation of the new policy sounded just like going back to GM schools in the 1990s.
    Another ‘red line’ should be that “opting out” in order to scupper local rationalisation plans should not
    be allowed – this is already underway in Bath! In this era of austerity we should also not be introducing scheme designed to create more surplus capacity in the system.
    By all means support “free schools” – we pretty much have that through Local Management of Schools – actually a LD idea piloted in Cambridgeshire, introduced by the Tories nationally. If more freedoms are requested by schools – these are likely to be issues like curriculum and staff terms and conditions – freedoms from the Sec of State, not from LEAs.
    Yes to free schools, Yes to local democratic accountablity and local commissioning, No to a national schools system controlled by the Sec of State.

  • Malcolm Todd 31st May '10 - 9:38am

    I wave my hand and nod my head also in support of this article. The Lib Dems had an excellent policy on education, influenced by Scandinavian policy if my leaky memory serves: effectively scrapping the national curriculum and letting schools/teachers decide how to teach. The Tories had a policy that was irrelevant at best and poisonous at worst, and also claimed Scandinavian antecedents. The coalition has picked the wrong one! (Today I read that far from scrapping centralised control of teaching, the government has asked Niall Ferguson to rewrite the history curriculum. It’s not even the fact that he’s described as an “apologist for imperialism” that’s most wrong about this.)

    One test for the policy will be whether there is to be any extra money for schools that opt for academy status. Lib Dems, in government or out of it, should fight like fury against that: if “independence” is valuable in itself, schools won’t need to be bribed to choose it. Even so, that’s only about ameliorating a bad policy: withdrawing a “good” school from the local authority family, along with its per capita proportion of LEA-retained funding, will be an effective, hidden transfer from the education of the poor to that of the middle class.

  • I think this might be the policy area that breaks the Coalition and is potentially very damaging for us as an independent entity as it will combine the potential break up of elements the current state school system with spending cuts. The gains may well be dwarfed by the negatives.

    Along with other Lib Dems I have opposed an ill thought out academy in our constituency. That said, I did not have strong objections to their original Adonis concept of academies as trying something different where all else seemed to have failed. However there is a difference between something used occasionally to deal with an intractable problem where more resources with different approach may be fruitful and the current proposal of floating all schools away from local authorities. The current Gove proposal will mean more power being passed to the civil servants in the Dept for Education. In turn local shared services – music, drama, governor training, CPD etc run by local councils are bound to come under pressure. Add in lower funding and we have at best an increasingly variable system with stronger schools pulling away from the rest with the latter struggling to deal with this less balanced system. The pupil premium will be a useful addition but it will not be a counterweight and remember the current system includes a number of funding items that already are form of pupil premium and would almost inevitably be wrapped up with a more formal system. Some colleagues seem to have over estimated the potential impact of our policy on this, at least in its now reduced from.

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