Fairer on faith, action on academies

30th April 2010 at 01:00
The Green Party's push for a more just system would also see private schools encouraged to join the state sector

If you want to see the biggest challenges facing state education in Britain today, you could do worse than start in Brighton. So many of the key debates about schools in recent years have been played out on our doorsteps in this city - whether it be over admissions, religion, private schools or academies.

But let us start with the school run. It upsets me, and other Green councillors in Brighton and Hove, to see how many children here have to travel by bus or car because of the distance they live from their schools.

Is this because of the city's controversial admissions "lottery"? No. Since its introduction, the total distances children travel has actually fallen slightly (this may be because it is not really a lottery; it's more of a classic catchment area scheme, with a lottery only used in the case of two particularly popular schools, and only for those in their catchment areas).

So what is the real reason that hundreds of children need to board buses or get a lift in cars? The explanation is simpler: we do not have a comprehensive in the city centre.

When we campaign for one, as we have for some time, people ask where we would put it in the heart of an overcrowded city. While there are many possibilities to be explored, in a fairer society the answer would be staring us in the face. We already have two city-centre secondary schools. The problem is that one of them is independent and the other is a Catholic school.

What would the Green party do about this if we gained power? The issue of private education is hard to resolve - "nationalising private schools" may sound attractive but it is hard to see how it would work. We instead propose a "voluntary integration programme", which would include removing charitable status and other tax breaks. This wouldn't immediately remove the Etons of this world but it would make it more attractive for schools to join the state sector, in a similar way to the creation of the NHS in the 1940s under the stewardship of Nye Bevan. It would also mean that those independent schools that are struggling financially would be able to join the state sector rather than close and we would not lose their buildings to private housing or office developers.

It also seems bizarre in this country that we are so unquestioning on the issue of faith schools. In the interests of equality, state funding is now extended to all mainstream faiths. Yet if this is followed to its logical conclusions it will inevitably create more social divisions. Many countries do not have state-funded faith schools, notably France, and even the US.

Yes, we must understand why people feel faith schools need to exist, including their desire for their children to practise their faith regularly, or enjoy the spiritual dimension and ethos offered by such schools. But Green Party policy favours replacing the current selective and divisive system with a multicultural and multi-faith perspective in all schools.

It is deeply unfair that many parents cannot attend their nearest school, either because of their religion or lack of one. Even more outrageous is discrimination in employment. I was shocked when I first heard that faith schools could appoint staff based on faith alongside an "expectation" that staff would be available on Saturdays or Sundays for services, even if they were part-time employees. This should be outlawed immediately. The first step any government should take to improve admissions would be to require all faith schools to conform to the rules applied to other schools.

While faith schools are unfair, I believe that academies are one of the most hare-brained policies to be dreamed up by any politician. It strikes me as bonkers that the Government has decided that the best way to deal with schools it has deemed to be "failing" - purely on the basis of test results - is to knock down their buildings, put new ones up and hand over their management to private sponsors. These schools are condemned for their raw scores, yet the average raw score of an academy tends to be below the national average. Where academies have shown dramatic improvements, a change in their intake coupled with higher exclusion rates seem to be the major factors.

In Brighton and Hove a new academy has been formed in a school that had the second highest value-added results across the city and whose popular head has not been offered the post of principal. Predictably, the school's staff are suffering the fate shared by many who have witnessed a switch to academy status: they have been asked to reapply for their jobs, and their salaries and terms and conditions are being reviewed. And now there is a chance we will have a second academy in the city with the same specialism and same sponsor.

The academy sponsors appoint the board, which in turn appoints the principal. And it seems that anyone who has #163;2 million to spare can become a sponsor, even if they have no experience of education. It is chilling to think what will happen if these schools are in the wrong hands.

Local authorities can feel trapped by central government into going down the academy route. There is nothing they can then do to prevent academies opting out of their admissions schemes, refusing to meet children's special needs, excluding disproportionate numbers of pupils, or failing. Yet it is the local authorities who are often left to pick up the pieces.

The Green Party would create no new academies, would seek to bring existing academies into local authority control and, in the short term, instigate a maximum 25 per cent voting rights for sponsor appointees.

How would the Green Party fund our education policies? In addition to not funding illegal wars, we would put higher taxes on higher earners. We also believe a significant amount of money could be found from the existing education budget. Money currently spent on spanking new buildings, state-of-the-art technology and meeting the demands of centralised targets would be redirected to introduce smaller class sizes and more qualified special needs teachers. We would retrofit and update rather than automatically replace buildings and technology. This, combined with more faith, trust and respect in teachers, would certainly be a good start.


Rachel Fryer, Green Party education spokesperson and a city councillor in Brighton and Hove.

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