Tories try to harness parent power

What do you do when your children's school is closing down? Vote Conservative and set up your own, says Michael Gove. Richard Garner finds out how the plans go down in Kirklees
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The Independent Online

The teacher sounded incredulous. She could not understand – and nor would her colleagues, she said – why Sweden was the word mentioned most often by the politicians.

The reason, of course, is that introducing Swedish-style independent "free" schools, where parents can set up and run their own schools, is a central platform of the Conservatives' election manifesto.

And to parents like Lesley Surman, a mother of three whose local middle school – Birkenshaw, in Kirklees, West Yorkshire – is scheduled for closure, it makes sense. "For us here I think it is a brilliant idea," she said. "Parents in a situation like we've got, where there are more children than school places, would definitely benefit from it."

Her council has decided to phase out middle schools for nine- to 13-year-olds, so the Birkenshaw site will no longer be a school, and her children – Oliver, 11, Ryan, nine, and Jack, eight – will have to travel six miles to their allocated secondary school.

Hundreds of parents have joined Lesley in signing a petition aimed at persuading the Labour-controlled council to let them set up their own secondary school on the Birkenshaw site.

Whilst the parents would in name run the school through its governing body, they would call in a private company to be in charge of day-to-day administration – namely Serco, one of the biggest companies most people haven't heard of, which has a history of involvement in education.

To Michael Gove, who will be Britain's next Education Secretary if the Tories win a majority on 6 May, cases like theirs are unanswerable.

He would let the schools – to be run by parents, teachers, faith groups or private sponsors – be free of the national curriculum and set their own pay scales. There would be a minimum national salary that they would have to pay.

But heads like Geoff Barton, who runs the 1,440-pupil King Edward VI High School in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, are sceptical.

He has had to turn away 92 parents this year who put his oversubscribed school down as their first choice for their kids – just the sort of scenario ripe for a campaign by disappointed parents to set up their own school nearby.

"What it will mean is that schools like this that are relatively well-supported [at the moment] will start to see cuts and class sizes going up," said Mr Barton. "To me it feels unrealistic."

He adds: "Also, he [Gove] is saying to existing schools 'I want your child to be spending time at school studying this, that and the other,' but is then saying to these schools, 'Let's stop these schools doing the national curriculum, it's a juggernaut.'"

Mr Gove wants a return to a more traditional, slimline curriculum spelling out what children should learn at key stages in maths and English, and, in history, learning about the kings and queens of England.

David Laws, the Liberal Democrats' schools spokesman, believes Mr Barton has pinpointed a contradiction in the Conservatives' plan for Britain's schools. "It's bonkers," said Mr Laws. "A stricter national curriculum for existing schools, but independent 'free' schools free from it."

In the past few weeks, Lesley Surman and her fellow campaigners have found out what it is like in the political spotlight. Days after Mrs Surman appeared on television, the Kirklees parents suddenly received a letter from Mr Balls, who immediately dispatched a senior adviser to the area to report back on their plans. However, Mr Balls turned down their application on his civil servants' advice, claiming that a new school would lead to too many surplus places in existing schools in the area – and for good measure he accused Mr Gove of "playing Santa Claus" by promising parents new schools without saying how he was going to pay for them.

Labour's commitment to parent power in this election is through plans for "parents' guarantees" to be drawn up for each parent with their school, to include things like the "guarantee" of one-to-one coaching if a pupil falls behind in literacy or numeracy, and a curriculum tailored to the individual child.

In addition, Labour promises if enough parents are dissatisfied with the way a school is run, the local authority will be compelled to hold a ballot of all parents with a view to bringing in a new provider to run the school.

Mr Balls said: "It is right that parents drive change where it is needed so this is our offer to parents: if your child is falling behind in the three Rs we will guarantee them extra help.

"If your local schools are not doing well enough, and if you are dissatisfied with the progress your local school is making, you will be able to demand change and get a new and quality-guaranteed provider."

Headteacher Geoff Barton sees this as symptomatic of a lack of trust in the professionals who deliver the education service. "That's got worse since Ed Balls came in," he said. "All of us think working with parents is important but you're by definition going to change the nature of the relationship with parents.

"It's a bit much for the Government at the centre to guarantee 'this, that and the other' if they're not the one that's going to have to deliver."

Some heads believe this policy could be a lawyers' bonanza. After all, they argue, who but the courts will be able to decide definitively whether a school is offering an individual child a curriculum tailored to meet his or her need?

There is one area of policy that all three parties ostensibly agree on – the need for a "pupil premium" to give schools more money to educate children from disadvantaged homes.

Even here there are significant differences, though.

The pioneers in this field are the Liberal Democrats who said they will plough an extra £2.5bn into the education budget to pay for it. The money will come from ending the Government's Children's Trust Fund and cutting tax credits. That would allow them to give £2,500 per pupil extra to all those who qualify for free school meals.

The Conservatives would find supposed back office savings and abolish several educational quangos, but Mr Gove admits they have not spelt out in detail how they would fund it or how much it will be. That will come "at the earliest opportunity", he says.

Ed Balls' version gives local authorities the right to decide how to set their own premium. The money would come from an existing £3bn annual hardship fund distributed to local councils. As his opponent Mr Laws points out, though: "What is missing is the suggestion of any additional funding."

The final key area of debate in the education election manifestos is over testing and exams.

The Conservatives are lukewarm about the Government's flagship diplomas – and will not go ahead with the introduction of three so-called academic diplomas to be introduced by 2013 in languages, the humanities and science. The obligation for every council to offer every pupil the opportunity to study whichever of the 14 different diplomas they want would be removed. Some will wither on the vine, Mr Gove admits.

Mr Balls, on the other hand, flags the diplomas as the potential natural route for 16- to 18-year-olds to follow rather than A-levels. Back at the chalkface, though, take-up of the diplomas has been disappointing. King Edward VI High School, for instance, has abandoned them.

Ministers have acknowledged that the diplomas – in subjects like engineering, construction and the built environment, and creative and media studies – cannot be taught by just one institution and therefore students will have to travel between schools and colleges to complete their studies. "I can't believe there will be any other country where their main qualification means kids sitting on buses going to different schools and colleges," said Mr Barton.

However, the first major dilemma any incoming government will face in education is teachers' planned boycott of national curriculum tests for 11-year-olds in maths and English – they complain that they encourage too much teaching to the tests in the last year of primary schooling.

The tests are due to be sat in week one of the incoming government's tenure of office. None of the parties is committed to abolishing them, so a battle between teachers and ministers is certain.

Mr Balls has said that – if teachers' own assessments of their pupils can prove to be as robust as the tests in determining pupils' abilities – the sit-down exams could be phased out in future, but not this year.

Mr Gove suggests transferring the tests to the first term of secondary schooling – where they would be marked by secondary school teachers. The results of individual children would be traced back to feeder primary schools to allow league tables to be drawn up. He is not committed to it, believing it should be piloted first to see if it works.

There is one flaw, though, according to Mr Barton.

"It would be in our [secondary schools'] interests for them not to do very well so we can show we have added value to their education by the time they take GCSEs – whereas it is in the interests of the primary schools to show they have done very well.

"It would be a kind of perverse incentive."

On this issue, it looks as though from day one of the next Parliament – whoever wins – it will be a question of "let battle commence".

Education: How the parties compare

CLASS SIZES

The Conservatives say their new independent "free" schools would be able to have smaller class sizes. The Liberal Democrats would give a "pupil premium" of £2,500 to schools for every child from a disadvantaged home they take on. Labour says nothing on class sizes but would offer one-to-one tuition for pupils struggling to keep up in the three Rs.

CURRICULUM

Labour would keep tests for 11-year-olds but would eventually replace them with internal teacher assessment if that method proved robust. Conservatives would also keep them but consider switching them to the first term of secondary school to avoid "teaching to the test". Lib Dems would slim down their content.

PARENTAL CHOICE

Conservatives would allow parents to set up their own schools. Labour would give them a signed guarantee of good quality schooling. The Lib Dems say they would strengthen school admissions code to ensure all parents a "level playing field".

SPENDING

Conservatives have not ring-fenced school spending but say they would find money for new independent "free" schools from efficiency savings. Labour has guaranteed 2 per cent extra per pupil during the next three years but will make £1.1bn "non front-line" cuts. Lib Dems would spend £2.5bn a year extra on "pupil premium" by axeing Child Trust Fund and some tax credits.

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