Blueprint for major reform

27th January 2006 at 00:00
Will Tony Blair's plans bring 'irreversible change for the better?' William Stewart examines the education white paper

What is the white paper?

It is a document outlining the Government's plans for new laws, allowing it to test opinion before trying to get legislation through Parliament. It was published in October under the title Higher Standards: Better Schools For All. It sets out how the Government believes it can build on its existing reforms, and in the Prime Minister's words "ensure irreversible change for the better in schools".

What's in it?

The main points include:

* A new category of schools called trust schools

* A change in role for local authorities

* More personalised education with one-to-one tuition aimed at under-performing pupils and more stretching lessons for the gifted and talented

* A legal right for teachers to discipline pupils

* Schools to be given the power to issue parenting orders to the parents of misbehaving pupils

* Good schools to be encouraged to expand, and failing schools given a year to improve or face closure

* Free transport to give children from poorer families a wider choice of secondary schools

* Choice-advisers to help families to choose which school their children will attend

* A "parents' pot" of pound;180 million to help expand popular schools or create new ones where parents want them

* A schools commissioner to help parents demanding new schools and to match schools that want trusts with potential backers

* Formation of parent councils encouraged in trust schools

* Schools encouraged to adopt admissions banded by ability to ensure a comprehensive intake.

Are these proposals controversial?

Not all of them. The discipline plans - originally recommended by the Steer behaviour task force - have been universally welcomed and few take issue with proposals for more personalised education. But the trust schools and change in role for local authorities are opposed by large sections of the Labour party and the education world. Right-wing pundits have attacked the banding proposals and free transport for poor families as social engineering.

What is a trust school?

Originally billed in the white paper as "independent state schools", trust schools are state-funded schools that will operate independently of local authority control and be overseen by an external trust which could have private sponsors. Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, has recently tried to re-brand them as local authority maintained schools on the basis that, unlike academies, they will receive their funding via local councils.

What freedoms will trust schools have?

The same as foundation and voluntary-aided schools in that they will control their own assets, employ their own staff and set their own admissions.

The difference is that the trust will have the power to appoint a majority of the school's governors. It could be run by or with an external organisation, such as a private company, religious group, university, another school (independent or state), charity, or local neighbourhood or parent group. Alternatively, a school might form its own bespoke trust.

Like all schools, trust schools would be able to apply to the Government to vary the curriculum and staff pay and conditions, although few schools have opted to do so.

When trust schools were first announced, the Conservatives implied that they were exactly the same as the grant-maintained schools that they had introduced in the 1990s and were abolished by Labour in 1998. Ministers insist that this is not the case because, unlike trust schools, GM schools received preferential funding directly from central government.

Why does the Government say trust schools are a good thing?

Because they would benefit from external organisations providing facilities and expertise not available in the local community. Where schools share the same trust, the policy would promote collaboration, enabling groups of schools to operate with a common ethos, shared identity, and benefit from economies of scale. Trusts could spread innovation rapidly across several schools. Any staff or curriculum flexibilities applied for by a trust would cover all its schools.

Why do critics oppose them?

Because they say schools that set their own admissions could introduce covert selection. They also fear the influence of religious groups and private business controlling schools through trusts, at no cost and with little accountability.

What difference will trust schools make to teachers?

If trusts really do end up operating chains of schools, taking full advantage of their powers and successfully applying to vary the curriculum and staff pay and conditions, then the changes could be significant. But because trust status is entirely voluntary and it is up to governing bodies to decide whether they want to embark on a process that would see them lose control over their school, there may be very few takers. Even where trust schools are created, the reality is unlikely to be very different from working in a foundation school.

What does the white paper say about local authorities?

It envisages a new role for them as champions of the needs of parents and pupils in their areas, commissioning rather than providing education.

What does that mean?

It means that there will be no new "community" schools under direct local authority control. The Government says this is essential because councils will be taking strategic decisions about school provision in their area and there should be no conflict of interest. But critics say it will mean a loss of democratic accountability. Councils will have a new duty to promote choice, diversity and accessibility with regard to school places.

Why is there such a fuss about admissions?

Because opposition to academic selection is a long-held article of faith within the Labour party, and despite categorical government assurances to the contrary, many believe that is what new trust schools will lead to.

Ms Kelly said that schools that do not abide by the code of admissions - which prohibits any further academic selection - will be referred to the schools' adjudicator, whose decision will be legally binding. But critics say that system has not prevented the London Oratory school from selecting by interview, despite the code stating that this is bad practice. They say the code should be enshrined in law.

Who is opposing the white paper?

Teaching unions, the Audit Commission and parents' groups have all criticised it. More worryingly for the Government, at least 90 Labour backbenchers seem prepared to vote against it unless changes are made. They are backed by Labour luminaries including Estelle Morris, the former education secretary, and Neil Kinnock, the former party leader, who has broken his long record of loyalty over the issue. Even Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair's former press secretary and author of the infamous "bog standard comprehensive" put-down, seems to be opposed judging by his attendance at an anti-white paper meeting last week, where his wife Fiona Millar was a leading light.

Within the cabinet, John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister, made his opposition known weeks ago, and Hilary Benn, the International Development Secretary, and Patricia Hewitt, the Health Secretary, are thought to be unhappy about the plans. But in a move no doubt designed to embarrass Mr Blair, the Conservatives have pledged their support, although this may well disintegrate if the Government compromises to accommodate its rebels.

Why are the rebels making such a fuss now when Labour gave foundation schools virtually the same freedoms as trust schools as long ago as 1998?

A very good question. This row is about politics as much as education. The white paper has become a totem for many in the party who have had enough of being dragged to the right by Mr Blair about issues on which he has failed to consult them. They believe the paper bears the "sticky fingerprints" of Lord Adonis, who was head of the Number 10 policy unit before his enoblement and move to the Department for Education and Skills. Lady Morris said that if these proposals get through, they will be followed by even more freedoms for schools in two to three years' time.

What do the rebels want and how will the Government compromise?

They want to force all schools to abide by the code on admissions and give local authorities power to police and co-ordinate admissions, create new community schools and turn down school expansions. The rebels are hoping that the Government will take a favourable view of recommendations from the commons education select committee and alter the reforms to give local authorities a stronger role. But Mr Blair has given no sign of budging, and even if he does many backbenchers are warning he will have to go further still to win them over.

Platform 23 Opinion 26

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