Michael Meacher: Education reforms are still on the wrong track

A modernised public-service model would raise educational standards


The latest moves to square the circle over education reform are admittedly ingenious, even if superficial. Tony Blair now proposes that schools must act in accordance with the code on admissions. But the code is not statutory. The local admissions forum could "report" if a school has too few poorer children, but cannot enforce change. A local authority could apply to the Education Secretary to set up a new community school, but would then have to win a competition against other bids to do so.

All these ideas would help to block the worst effects of the White Paper's proposals for unfettered expansion of popular schools, an admissions policy which could indirectly reintroduce selection in some form, and external sponsors whose interest will not be focused on the performance and interaction between all schools in the area. But attempts to redress the defects of an unsatisfactory and inappropriate education reform model are, and can only be, partially successful.

The underlying problem remains that the basic structure being proposed is simply wrong. There is no evidence that increased market competition drives up standards for all. Indeed, non-selective systems achieve the highest standards and lowest social differentiation in achievement. Finnish pupils emerge top overall from an OECD assessment of 43 countries, and their schools operate no selection at all between nursery and 16 years, and reject constant testing.

What is needed is a wholly different model - not tinkering with structures and private markets, but a relentless focus on high-quality school leadership, the recruitment and professional development of teachers, close monitoring of each pupil's progress, high expectation of all pupils, effective communication between parents and school, and the ability constantly to self-evaluate.

Resources should then be targeted on pupils with the most challenging home backgrounds who by age 11 are falling behind in basic literacy and numeracy skills. This modernised public-service model would raise overall educational standards far more effectively than spending £5bn on 200 academies.

This pattern is not confined to education. Market forces are also being brought to bear on all other public services - health, housing, pensions, even probation - with similar effects. It is argued in favour of this process that it forces attention on weaknesses in the public system and pushes through change ruthlessly. It is also said that it compels a shake-up of the public-service model to see how it can better adapt and improve. The critical issue is whether any gains produced are outweighed by the corresponding disadvantages of the alternative market model.

For the health service, the main private market gains claimed are a considerable reduction in waiting times and greater choice. It is true that waiting lists have been cut by about a third overall, though this may flow more from the doubling of the health budget since 1997 than from market choice.

But the downsides of private health care are substantial. There is pressure to prioritise patients needing standard, low-risk, profitable treatment. Competition is not on a level playing field - privately owned Independent Treatment Centres are paid well above NHS national tariff rates and are guaranteed revenues from fixed-volume contracts even if patients don't use them. And suspicion lingers that what are sold as remedies to specific NHS problems may turn out to be the thin end of a full-scale privatisation wedge.

If that is the price of private health care, most would consider it far too high. But a robust, reinvigorated public-service model should be able to incorporate the gains without these severe drawbacks.

A similar pattern once again is manifest in housing. The Government inherited an enormous bill of £19bn for investment for repairs and improvements in council housing. Its refusal to finance these unless tenants vote for the outsourcing of estates to the private sector has its parallels in other sectors. In education, the Building Schools for the Future programme is being used to put pressure on local authorities to accept academies whether they want them or not - "no academy, no funding".

Even in the pensions field, the same predilection to switch to the private sector can be observed, with disastrous consequences. The obsessive one-solution-fits-all pretension of privatisation is not working in any of our public services. But tinkering around with its failings is not enough; we urgently need now a robust assertion of the superiority of the public-service model.

The writer is a Labour MP and served as Environment Minister from 1997-2003

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Errors & Omissions: Whoever and whatever Arthur was, he wasn’t Scottish

Guy Keleny
Labour's Jeremy Corbyn arrives to take part in a Labour party leadership final debate, at the Sage in Gateshead, England, Thursday, Sept. 3  

Jeremy Corbyn is here to stay and the Labour Party is never going to look the same again

Andrew Grice
The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea