Labour school-visit blitz makes education an election battlefield

11th September 2009 at 01:00
200th academy opens and sponsorship fees scrapped amid Tory pressure as campaign trail begins in earnest

The biggest coordinated school visit since Labour came to power took place on Monday as the Prime Minister and 19 of his ministers toured 30 schools around the country in just one day.

Opening the 200th academy school, The City Academy, Hackney in east London, Gordon Brown led the school-visit blitz that all but kicked off the campaign trail for the Government ahead of the general election, expected in nine months' time.

Education will undoubtedly be the biggest of the political footballs to be punted around during the run-in to next May, with both Labour and the Conservatives seeking to impress upon the voting public their plans for educational reform.

Ed Balls, Schools Secretary, used his visit this week to announce his plans to open up academy sponsorship more widely by scrapping the #163;2 million fee for private companies and charities.

Mr Balls said the charge was initially put in place to ensure that sponsors took the role "seriously", but two years ago he pulled the requirement for universities and further education (FE) colleges.

"The changes have meant 55 universities, 28 FE colleges and a number of schools successfully sponsoring academies," Mr Balls said. "I want to make sure we've got the widest range of sponsors possible. I don't think having the money should be the first qualifier for a sponsor to come forward."

He added that academies were sometimes viewed as simply recreating grant-maintained schools but free from local authority control.

"And that is a total misreading of what we're doing," he said. "It was never just about the freedoms schools get, but the injection of a different educational DNA, a new ethos and new leadership."

Mr Balls said his department is currently consulting on what the criteria should be to assess potential sponsors.

The move is seen as a direct response to the Conservatives' plans to allow any interested party - be it a group of parents or charity - to set up an academy.

A linchpin of the Tories' plans for educational reform is its New Academies programme, which is heavily based on the Swedish "free schools" system - effectively state-funded independent schools.

Last weekend, Mr Balls fired a salvo at the Tories by claiming that the party plans to open new schools in "rented office blocks".

He referred to an article in the Church Times, which quoted Nick Gibb, shadow schools minister, as saying "some of the best new schools in Sweden are set up in office blocks".

Mr Balls said: "(Shadow schools secretary) Michael Gove's Swedish schools model is unravelling week by week. We already know it's uncosted, unworkable and unpopular even in the Conservative Party itself, but this latest revelation shows just how little they have thought it through.

"Parents will be appalled to hear that under the Tories new schools would simply be opened up in rented office blocks. Where are children supposed to play and do sport? Where are school lunches going to be cooked and served?"

However, Mr Gove described the academy programme as "running on empty", claiming that only half of the institutions visited by the Government were actually new.

"New academies do not have the proper freedoms to make a decisive difference to children's education," Mr Gove said. "And 'new' schools built under (renewal programme) Building Schools for the Future (BSF) are in most cases existing establishments that have simply been helped with repairs.

"What we need to drive up standards is a radical reform programme to give schools meaningful autonomy and, hence, real choice."

The Conservatives have also started to question the Government's ability to continue to commit to its #163;55 billion BSF project.

According to Mr Gove, local authorities have spent more than #163;170 million on consultant fees in order to realise BSF in their regions.

"In tough economic times it is vital that ministers get good value for taxpayers' money," he said. "But under the Government's bureaucratic school refurbishment scheme, millions have already been spent on consultants with hardly any improvements actually delivered."

So while we wait for Gordon Brown to set a date for the poll, Monday's school-opening bonanza felt undoubtedly like the unofficial start of the education election battle.

DESPERATELY SEEKING SPONSORS

- Ed Balls, Schools Secretary, has opened the 200th academy under Labour - a year ahead of schedule.

- Mr Balls has scrapped the required #163;2 million sponsorship fee, opening up the academy programme to a wider range of potential sponsors.

- The sponsorship test now looks at the organisation's educational track record, its skills and leadership, and its commitment to working with parents, teachers and pupils rather than its ability to contribute financially.

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