Conor Ryan: False dividing lines mislead the public

Thursday 03 December 2009 01:00
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The Queen's Speech was all about dividing lines. The Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, suggested huge differences with his Tory shadow, Michael Gove, over their policies on school diversity. Mr Gove happily joined in, contrasting his plans with those of his opponent.

Both are happy to characterise their opposite number as the devil incarnate – Balls the arch-centraliser, undermining academy independence, or Gove the arch-privatiser, who would ignore the plight of the weakest schools. Of course, there is a grain of truth in the charges. Mr Balls has tweaked academy independence, forcing co-operation with local authorities. But he has not changed their fundamental character, and has expanded their number to 200, with 100 more due to open next year.

Mr Gove does want Swedish-style independent state-funded schools, promoted by parents and school chains. But they would be not-for-profit and he would turn the 100 worst schools into academies, a policy similar to the Balls idea of forcing change on schools where at least 30 per cent of pupils don't get five good GCSEs.

Indeed, Mr Gove would probably be able to achieve his main aims through existing legislation introduced by Labour, which already promotes competition for new schools and is intended to empower parents unhappy with existing school choices. That explains why the main legislation he cited for a Tory government's first Queen's Speech was an extension of teachers' powers to confiscate, and an abolition of the exclusion appeals panels that send just 60 out of 8,000 excluded pupils back to their schools each year.

By exaggerating each other's differences on discipline and diversity they are misleading the public and are in danger of underestimating the weaknesses of their own policies. By doing so, they could be threatening their own success.

One big spur for recent improvement has been floor targets, including the expectation that at least 30 per cent of pupils in a school achieve five good GCSEs including English and maths. With similar challenges to primary schools, a swathe of poorly performing schools has improved. Where 1,600 secondary schools fell below the GCSE threshold in 1997, only 270 do so today. And while the pressure was most effective with poor performers, comprehensives at 70 per cent or above have doubled in the same period.

While other targets may have been crude – and with the Treasury's help, certainly too numerous – floor targets have been Labour's greatest success. Yet instead of extending this challenge, Mr Gove would abandon it, making it harder to judge the success of his policies on replacing failing schools or extending competition. This is a real dividing line between Labour and the Conservatives. And it deserves to be highlighted more than the supposed dangers of their Swedish schools policy.

Indeed, by acceding to the Tories' false dividing lines on diversity, Labour is in danger of ceding its big education successes to them. Academies are a Labour innovation. A big reason for their success – their results improve twice as fast as other schools – is their independence from local authorities.

This doesn't mean academies don't want to work with their local councils, rather that any partnerships with them would be stronger because both parties are engaged voluntarily. Indeed some of the strongest community work I've seen has been in academies. Tony Blair recognised this when he extended foundation and introduced trust schools, which though funded through councils, own their own buildings and employ their own staff.

But while both academies and trust schools have expanded since Mr Balls became Schools Secretary, he has also tried to force rather than empower co-operation. Instead of extending such bureaucracy, Labour should be outflanking the Conservatives in their support for independent academies. And instead of exaggerating differences, the Conservatives should start to explain how we might judge the success of their schools policy – with goals based on exam results, not just the number of new schools. Doing so would serve schools, parents and pupils much better than the false choices being served up by both parties at the moment.

The writer is a former senior education adviser to Tony Blair and David Blunkett. He blogs at www.conorfryan.blogspot.com.

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