Michael Meacher: Education reforms are still on the wrong track

A modernised public-service model would raise educational standards
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The Independent Online

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