Frank Dobson: Why I will vote against Blair over schools

We could end up with the latter-day equivalent of the Taliban Technical College
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The Independent Online

Before they vote for the Education Bill, I urge my colleagues to remember that the last time the Prime Minister ignored the objections, doubts and reservations of Labour MPs and marched into the division lobby with the enthusiastic support of the Tories was over the invasion of Iraq.

While the issues are different, once again the Prime Minister is telling us to set aside our experience, knowledge, principles and instincts. Instead, we are to accept his judgement that the creation of independent state schools is the only way to improve our schools and that to oppose them marks us down as not wanting schools to do better. It's the same old syllogism: "Something must be done. This is something. Therefore this must be done." It wasn't true over Iraq and it's not true over schools.

We are told the Prime Minister's advisers looked at private schools and isolated independence as the factor that gave them their advantages. Sadly, they failed to spot that private schools spend three times as much per pupil, have smaller class sizes, better paid teachers and generally exclude the poor and disadvantaged. So it has been decreed that all schools in the public sector should become independent state schools, variously labelled trust, foundation or voluntary schools and academies. Businesses, private interests or religious organisations will run trust schools, determining their ethos and admissions, appointing staff and opting out of parts of the national curriculum. We could end up with the latter-day equivalent of the Enron Trust School, the Robert Maxwell Specialist Business School, the Taliban Technical College or the Inquisition Humanities Academy.

While not all sponsors may be as disreputable as this, the Education and Skills Select Committee found that "no causal link has been established between external partners and the success of a school". Good leadership, good funding and good teachers are what make a good school. Better leadership, better funding and better teaching are what have improved schools across the country, especially primary schools which, up till now, have not been distracted by reorganisation and restructuring.

The Education Bill promotes choice and diversity. There is very little evidence that a wide choice of schools is what parents want. The first choice for most parents is that the nearest local primary school and the nearest local secondary school will be good enough for their child and that they will get that first choice. Even most shopaholics don't relish shopping around for schools.

Then we come to the new shibboleth "diversity". Is our society really crying out for more diversity? Most thinking people are concerned more about the lack of social cohesion, breakdown of common standards of behaviour and the erosion even of shared experiences. Our Government should be promoting the things that bring our children together, not the reverse. Yet the Bill imposes on the elected local education authority a duty to promote diversity. Most children prefer to move on with their friends from primary to secondary school rather than being scattered. That certainly helps local social cohesion. The other problem with diversity is that we English can't "do" diversity except through hierarchy. That is at the heart of the Government's proposals.

Some of the most deprived children in some of the worst-off areas are getting the worst education, but it isn't logical to believe that the best way to achieve a good local school for every child is for high standards "trickling down" from a few superior schools. The children getting the worst deal need direct help. That means providing those most in need with more funds, better buildings and equipment, specially trained heads, more and better paid teachers and small class sizes. Whatever the warm words about this, the Government wants to promote competition. But schools that have to compete won't be keen to recruit low-achievers or poor attenders. A highly-publicised trust school with an aggressive recruitment policy for pupils and teachers could destabilise schools around and about to the detriment of the very children we are supposed to be helping.

Some claim that what the Government terms clarifications of policy amount to genuine concessions. I take the Government at its word. In any case, the changes don't affect the basic thrust of the policy. So I say to my colleagues, if they are not convinced by the analogy with how we got into such a mess over Iraq, they should look at the embarrassing state of the NHS. It is the same pseudo marketeers who have been advising ministers on the NHS who have come up with the new policy on schools.

The writer, a Labour MP, was health secretary from 1997-99

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