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Blair sends us the low-achievers

The PM's newschool reforms suggest he aimsto export the least able pupils to colleges, writes Mark Corney

Just as university top-up fees dominated education and training policy in the last Parliament, secondary school reform dominates this one. All eyes are on 10 Downing Street. Compromise is in the air. But whatever the eventual deal, the fixation with "school freedoms" says a great deal about the PM's view of the role of 14-19 vocational education and of FE.

Just under a third of the 3,400 secondary schools in England have foundation status. They own their own land, employ their own staff and act as their own admissions authorities. Importantly, the proportion of 15-year-olds gaining five good GCSEs including English and maths - the new benchmark of GCSE success - in schools with foundation freedoms is 51 per cent, compared to only 39 per cent in community schools.

The policy-makers at No 10 gloss over the fact that some schools with foundation freedoms are grammar schools, and since 97 per cent of grammar pupils achieve the new GCSE benchmark this certainly brings down the average for non-selective foundation schools.

Even so, No 10 believes foundation status frees schools to develop a strong ethos, and one that matters, an academic ethos. The bedrock of success is GCSEs in English and maths and other traditional GCSEs, together with the odd vocational GCSE linked to the school's specialism.

But a strong academic ethos can only be developed with academic success at 18 and the promise of university. For No 10, the policies that link the schools white paper to the 14-19 reforms are the retention of A-levels, expansion of school sixth forms and trust status.

In its report on the white paper, the Education and Skills Select Committee proves the proposed new "trust" status would give a foundation school no extra freedoms. In fact, the benefits of the new status are mainly that it allows collaboration between schools and other partners.

However, this does not undermine the role of school trusts from No 10's perspective. The expansion of small sixth forms will require collaboration locally to ensure a broad curriculum is offered. And the academic ethos of any school would be enhanced through a trust partnership with a university.

For the Prime Minister, the overriding priority of the white paper and 14-19 reform is the expansion of high-performing GCSE schools with school sixth forms offering A-levels so that more young people can go to university.

If school freedoms can ensure more schools help more pupils to get five Cs or better at GCSE, including English and maths, they should be supported.

Improvement by most schools cannot be held back because every school cannot be improved. In any event, 14-19 vocational education and training is there to assist low-performing schools with large numbers of pupils who cannot succeed at traditional GCSEs.

Critics of No 10 argue that the white paper reforms will reinforce social segregation. They say foundation and trust schools will become middle-class ghettos as they disregard children from poorer families and neighbourhoods, and children who are more difficult to teach.

"Remember the poor, Mr Blair," the critics cry. Yet the reality is that the Prime Minister already has - and knows exactly what he wants them to do: the large rump of low-performing community schools in poorer areas will also develop a strong ethos - but it will be a forced vocational ethos. It is for them that the 14-19 vocational reforms - including vocational GCSEs, GNVQs, NVQs and youth apprenticeships - are primarily intended.

And it is these low-achievers that FE will rescue because of its social justice ethos as much as its vocational ethos, although, ironically, perhaps this will be done through the controversial trust schools.

For the Prime Minister, the ultimate policy objective is, and has always been, to increase and widen participation in higher education and hence to enhance social mobility.

If the price of getting more "bright" kids from poorer backgrounds into HE through structural reform of schools is worsening vocational segregation, widening the academic-vocational divide and increasing the export of failing pupils from schools to FE, then so be it.

And let there be no doubt - whatever the deal between No 10 and rebel Labour MPs on the white paper, the basic aim of increasing and widening participation in HE will shape the Government's response to both the Foster review of the future of FE, and the Leitch review of skills to the year 2020.

Mark Corney is director of MC Consultancy

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