Last week's white paper was billed as a pivotal moment in Tony Blair's efforts to modernise schools before he leaves office. Here the Prime Minister answers TES readers' concerns about pay, parent power and what he plans to do when he finally leaves office.
Why the U-turn?
Q) The Government used to believe changing school structures was a distraction from the key task of raising standards. Why has the Government done a U-turn?
Chris Roberts, Kent parent who plans to train as a teacher.
A) There has been no U-turn but two complementary stages of reform. To start with, we corrected the under-investment left by the Tories and drove change from the centre. This was necessary. For all the pressures they caused, I don't believe we would have got the real and genuine improvements in performance we have seen without targets for school results and the literacy and numeracy strategies. In particular, we would never have dealt so effectively with chronic failure. In 2005, the number of failing schools is half that of 1997; and more than 80,000 children every year do better on the basics. But we have also recognised that our reforms needed a second dimension. So, particularly since 2001, we have done more to open the system up to new influences with the growth of specialist schools and academies. We have made it easier for schools to gain greater independence as foundation schools. I believe this dimension is vital if the important focus on standards is to be embedded and extended within schools. Far from this being an about-turn, it is the logical extension of our reforms.
Trust in parents' power to care
Q) Why do you believe that parents would do a better job of running schools? And what makes you think that they want to?
David Mingay, Pirton Hill infant school, Luton.
A) I don't believe parents should be running schools on a day-to-day basis.
Nor are they going to be. That's the job of heads and school leaders. I do believe, however, that parents should have more involvement in decisions on issues like the curriculum, school meals and uniform. And they should also be given more practical information about their child's progress. We also want parents to have more power to push for changes where Ofsted uncover problems and make it easier for them to set up new schools where they are dissatisfied with the existing provision for their children. And it is why parents should be able to exercise choice, whatever their background.
People say that if parents won't become governors, then they're not interested. I don't think that's the case: most parents care enormously about how their child is doing at school. I recognise, of course, that with these rights comes an expectation that parents become much more engaged and interested in their children's education. We want to see that as well. And schools should have the ability to ensure that parents take their responsibilities for attendance and school discipline seriously.
Q) In what way will the proposed new schools' 'freedoms' differ from Grant Maintained Status?
The Rev Dr Peter Shepherd head, Canon Slade sch, Bolton
A) I hear the Tories suggesting that our reforms are taking schools back to GM status along with their other claim that nothing has changed in the past eight years. Neither claim stands up to much examination. The Tory policy, as always, put the few before the many. Our proposals will allow all schools, not just a favoured few, much more freedom and the chance, through a simple vote of their governors to become foundation schools; will bring in fair funding between all schools; and, importantly, ensure they operate an admissions policy which is fair to all parents and pupils. We have also, of course, greatly increased investment in education and moved towards a system of ring-fenced funding. It means heads not only have more freedom to spend their budgets but also have much larger budgets. But what's important is that we match reform with this extra investment.
Private firms or local democracy
Q) Do you believe that state-funded education should be run by private companies, answerable to shareholders or trusts, rather than LEAs, answerable to the local electorate via the ballot box?
Peter Sopowski secondary teacher, Southampton.
A) I want schools, as I have said already, to be more answerable to parents and their communities. I also want schools to be able to tap into the expertise of successful neighbouring schools, of established educational charities like the Mercers or the United Learning Trust or linked to leading universities and business foundations. I think these links are a real benefit to schools as many specialist schools and academies are already showing. I think it is good to draw on as wide a pool of ideas and enthusiasm as we can so long as they share the goals of improving education for all our children. Local authorities will have a different role for which they will certainly be answerable to local voters. They will be champions of parents' interests and expected to ensure there is a good range of good schools available locally, drawing on the full range of expertise available.
Value of reforms
Q) Do you genuinely believe, contrary to all the evidence and viewpoints put forward by professionals who work in education, that your reforms will help the most disadvantaged children as opposed to further helping the middle class parents whose votes you seem so keen to keep?
Michael Tidd, trainee teacher, Chichester university
A) Yes, I do believe it. And so, more importantly, do many teachers and heads because they have told me so themselves. Not only that, but the whole thrust of our reforms since 1997 has been aimed at lifting schools in our poorest communities with, I'm proud to say, real success. All our schools have improved but the improvement has been fastest in recent years in exactly the communities you are concerned about. That's been due to the hard work of teachers and pupils. But I believe the additional support we have given, through initiatives like Excellence in Cities, have also played a major part. Academies have twice as many youngsters from poorer backgrounds as the national average, and they are also attracting pupils from the range of backgrounds, moving from being ghetto schools of serious underperformance to providing real hope in some of our most deprived communities. That's why we want more of them. The literacy and numeracy strategies raised expectations and standards for all, and will now be backed up by more tailored support for those who need extra help or stretch, not least in our most disadvantaged areas. We moved specialist schools from being a programme targeted outside the inner cities to one which is now key to real improvement in inner city schools. We will ensure that the development of trusts equally benefits children of all backgrounds, particularly those from our most disadvantaged communities - and that all parents are given the support they need to make the right choices for their children.
Q) I am not satisfied with provision for my son, who has severe learning difficulties. How do I go about setting up a school for him and others like him?
Parent and secondary science teacher, Kent
A) Parents can already set up independent special schools for pupils with severe learning difficulties - and some already have. There are 11,500 pupils with statements of special needs in the independent sector, many funded by the local authority, including in some schools set up by parents exactly as you suggest. Any new schools, of course, would have to comply with legal requirements, for example, over staffing and the safety of premises. The Government is now consulting how our new role for local authorities - and the wider right for parents to ask for new state schools or more places in good state schools - could support parents with children with special needs. We are committed to ensuring that the differing needs and wishes of parents and children with special needs are met appropriately. So as well as 83,000 pupils in local authority special schools, there are now 20,000 pupils with statements in specialist units attached to mainstream schools as well as many taught, with additional help, in the schools themselves. But I accept there is room for improvement and we are keeping SEN provision under review.
Pay in peril?
Q) Will your new "independent state schools' honour nationally agreed pay awards for teachers and will they honour nationally agreed conditions of service for teachers with regard, in particular, to teaching hours per week and holiday entitlement?
Secondary foreign languages teacher
A) Self-governing and Trust schools will, of course, be the employers of their staff. But they will also have to respect existing contracts and work within the national system for determining pay and conditions of teachers.
Like all schools, however, they will be able to use the right, under the Power to Innovate initiative, to ask the Department for Education and Skills for permission to improve on these terms and conditions provided they can show these changes will also improve educational outcomes. A trust working with a number of schools could also apply for such improvements. I hope that re-assures you.
Q) Precisely what "powers to discipline' will be enshrined in law, and exactly how will they be different to the situation now? (We are authorised to use "reasonable force" for example at the moment, although it is very unclear what this means).
Secondary teacher, North Kent
A) What we are doing is responding to requests from teachers and heads for a clear and unambiguous right to discipline pupils. Teachers complain that some pupils, and sadly some parents, challenge their attempts to bring order in the classroom - and that a lack of any single clear statement in law left too much open to question. The new law will remove any doubts, reduce time-wasting and disruption, whilst supporting staff in ensuring good order and discipline. But it is as much about changing culture as clarifying the law. By sending a strong message to parents and pupils that disrespect won't be tolerated, it supports and strengthens teachers in the classroom. And that's got to be good.
Q) Following the White Paper, have you any intentions of becoming a teacher when you leave No 10? Why?
Steve Garnett, primary teacher
A) I have huge admiration for teachers. No-one does a more important job.
No-one makes such a difference for good in our society. And I am proud that, under this Government, there has, at least, been real progress towards ensuring teachers' pay better reflects the vital role they play in our society. As to my own future, I honestly have not thought of what I will do when I leave politics. There's plenty more I want to help achieve before that happens.