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26 July 2007

Schools need to be fair, not free

Gordon Brown may have handled the transition to No 10 with extraordinary success but trouble may lie

By Fiona Millar

Inside trackInside trackGordon Brown prefaced his arrival at No 10 with several speeches setting out his passion for education. He reinforced this in his first words on the steps of Downing Street, when he praised his own education at a local school for giving him the opportunities he would wish for every other child to have.

The first few speeches and statements made by Brown’s close ally Ed Balls on his appointment to the new Department for Children, Schools and Families were notably different in tone from those churned out in the Blair era. Gone was the mantra of diversity and parent choice; instead the focus was on the needs of children and on standards, not structures.

Everyone is willing the Brown-Balls partnership to get this bigger vision for education right. But the risks they face are self-evident. While the tone and ambition may be different, the structural changes that started in the Blair era are still being rolled out with a vengeance.

The basic unfairness of much of what went on under the banner of “diversity and choice” casts a long shadow over attempts to persuade that every child does matter.

Parental choice may have played a part in driving up standards, but diversity in many urban areas has simply meant a proliferation of different types of schools. They stand out less for the type of education they offer than for the convoluted ways in which they are “free” to pick off the children most likely to succeed, the inevitable consequence of the league tables that Balls appears to endorse in their current form.

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To many parents, this looks like a hierarchy with a strict pecking order of eligible applicants, rather than a genuine choice. In many communities, it is contributing to more, not less, segregation by race, class and faith.

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It also works against the spirit of collaboration, on which future reform of post-14 education, and Gordon Brown’s commitment to keeping more young people in education and training until the age of 18, both depend.

Meanwhile his government’s support for city academies is incomprehensible, given its simultaneous promise of more citizen participation, greater democracy, transparency and localism.

Whether sponsored by universities or not, city academies remain independent institutions with deeply undemocratic governance arrangements, which give total control to sponsors in return for little or no capital investment, and which pay lip service to parental representation at any level. They are not covered by the body of education law that governs parents’ and pupils’ rights on admissions, special needs and exclusions in maintained schools, and are under no obligation to co- operate with other local schools.

I have yet to see a reasonable explanation for why they need these freedoms; unless it is, as many suspect, so that they can improve results by changing their intakes. Independent research carried out for the government in 2005 by PricewaterhouseCoopers seems to suggest that this might be so, given that academies are excluding more children and benefiting from more advantaged intakes than their predecessor schools.

The caution with which Brown and Balls are approaching these issues is understandable. The twin themes of continuity and change have ensured a successful transition.

However, the moment must come when they are bold enough to articulate the bigger political vision one suspects that they privately endorse: in favour of local schools that aren’t painted as the “second-class option” but which offer high-quality education to all and bring children of different backgrounds together, rather than separate them.

For that vision to become a reality, further reform of admissions is inevitable. Partnerships rather than competition between schools must be nurtured, the league tables must be subjected to wholesale reform, and wholly autonomous institutions should be brought gradually back into the maintained school framework; all of this being underpinned by a clear set of value judgements about what does make a “good school”.

Hopes are high at the moment. But without the courage to face down tough opponents – the selective schools, some of the faith groups and the academy zealots – the new team may ultimately disappoint.