December 19, 2005
How desire for reform became a class struggle for the Cabinet
By Alexandra Blair, Education Correspondent
Schools agenda that bred fear of return to a two-tier system by the backdoor
TONY BLAIR’S plans to reform the school system and secure his political legacy have been given a rough ride by both the education establishment and his own party since they were first made public.
The 116-page White Paper, Higher Standards, Better Schools for All, met with Tory cheers and Labour silence when it was announced in the Commons by Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary.
It has now been rounded on by John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, in an embarrassing intervention that emphasises the depth of government divisions.
At the heart of the White Paper is a promise to give more freedom for schools and a bigger role for parents and the private sector in state education. Every school in England will have the chance to become an “independent”, non-fee-paying “trust school”. These new trust schools will be backed by businesses, universities and faith groups, who will all have considerable powers over the way the schools are run.
Trust schools will be free from local authority control, able to manage their own assets, tailor their curricula and set their own admissions procedures. But Mr Prescott fears that the White Paper would give schools greater freedom, which would mean a return to the 11-plus and lead to the return of a two-tier system favouring the middle classes.
Other critics say that if every school has complete control over its own admissions, head teachers will be able to work the system to pick only the brightest children. This would boost their place in the school league tables.
Many Labour MPs, teachers’ unions and parents’ groups hate the idea of more grammar school-style selection where 11-year-olds are picked out on their academic ability. Ms Kelly has insisted repeatedly that there is “no way” she will bring in more selection to schools. There is a national “admissions code”, which rules out selection on ability and which would stay in place under the new system. But the code is not compulsory. Schools only have to have “regard” to it and do not all have to sign up to every word of it.
Many middle-class parents are able to play the admissions system now, by moving house and manipulating existing arrangements to their benefit. This means that top schools attract brighter pupils from middle-class homes while poorer children are left to their own devices in “sink” comprehensives.
Ms Kelly, who will be forced to defend the reforms before the Commons Education Select Committee this afternoon, insists that they will expand parental choice and help to raise standards for the worst off.
With as many as 70 Labour backbenchers against the reforms, Mr Blair faces a highly damaging Commons defeat unless he makes changes. Last week he expressed his determination to press ahead.
Yesterday David Willetts, the Shadow Education Secretary, urged him to stand firm and said that the Deputy Prime Minister’s fears were fuelled by a deep resentment that he had failed his own 11-plus.
Officials at the Department for Education and Skills acknowledged that there were widespread concerns, but said that they were as a result of “misconceptions about the free-for-all on admissions, that we do not accept”.
He said that discussions between groups and individual Members of Parliament would continue, and that a prospectus detailing how Trust schools would work would be published in the new year.
Teaching unions have expressed widespread hostility to the reforms. Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: “The White Paper plan for structural reform will result in a two-tier education system that ignores the needs of the majority and denies them opportunities.”
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said: “I believe the concept of Trust schools will be widely ignored by heads. But I am against the introduction of a new category of schools and a new raft of regulations and the prospect of returning to a two-tier system of education.”