OK, I admit it, the coalition's got good ideas

21st May 2010 at 01:00
... but the pupil premium and free schools will only work if the details are right, says Tony Blair's former education adviser

Education Secretary Michael Gove plans a speedy introduction for the new Con-Lib coalition's two most radical school reforms: a pupil premium giving schools extra money for disadvantaged pupils, and the expansion of academies. At the same time, he wants to raise standards in exams, scrap targets and improve accountability.

The pupil premium and "free schools" plans are both good ideas. Indeed, Mr Gove freely admits drawing on Tony Blair's school reform plans. But unless he gets the details and the levers right, he won't achieve the improved standards and fairer funding he hopes to deliver.

Mr Gove wants outstanding schools to become academies as a right. This appeals to many former grant-maintained schools, as their funding would come from central rather than local government. Second, he wants any schools failing for more than a year to be closed and replaced by academies, echoing Labour's approach. And third, he wants parents, teachers and charities to promote new "free schools" similar to the Swedish model.

But the policy details matter as much as their radical intent. Former schools secretary Ed Balls made two excellent schools into academies - Outwood Grange College in Wakefield and Greensward School in Essex. In return, they established trusts to help weaker schools to improve. Mr Gove should use this model as a lever to gain more improvement by making the most of our best heads. That way he can link greater freedoms with higher standards.

With free schools, he faces different problems. Some parents' and teachers' groups will be attracted to working with education providers to develop free schools. But the policy could prove just as attractive to unviable small schools threatened with closure and to controversial faith groups.

A schools commissioner - a post Mr Balls scrapped - is vital to encouraging new promoters, particularly in disadvantaged areas, and to ensuring that any public money spent on building or refurbishing the new schools is not wasted. In the absence of for-profit schools - a crucial element in Sweden - it is taxpayers, not the providers, that fund the risk.

And there are some levers that Mr Gove may be tempted to ignore, but would be unwise to. I'm all for a bureaucracy bonfire: most Treasury-driven targets were counterproductive, and Mr Balls exacerbated some. But floor targets have been New Labour's unsung success, and Mr Balls rightly extended them.

These are minimum standards, such as the expectation that all schools achieve five good GCSEs for at least 30 per cent of their pupils. They have seen the number of below-target secondary schools fall from 1,600 in 1997 to 247 last year, with similar gains in primaries. Mr Gove might adapt these targets to include science or languages but he shouldn't lose them completely.

The pupil premium was presented as a Liberal Democrat victory in the coalition negotiations. In truth, it was favoured by all three parties. The big difference was that the Lib Dems had put a #163;2.5 billion price tag on its delivery. By contrast, the Conservatives had hoped to deliver the premium through savings elsewhere and they saw it as a lever to encourage good schools to recruit poorer pupils.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies says the Lib Dem version could provide schools with an extra #163;2,400 for each pupil in receipt of free school meals. However, the existing system also provides substantial extra resources for these pupils, amounting to far more on average. But it is concentrated in areas with the greatest disadvantage, whereas the coalition proposals would fund poorer pupils in leafier shires and suburbs as well.

So the Treasury will surely demand a rationalisation of existing funding before introducing the premium. However, this could create plenty of noisy losers as well as quietly grateful winners, as schools rely on pots like the Standards Fund to support the curriculum and staff posts.

Charles Clarke experienced this problem when he tried to reform school funding as education secretary. Schools will need to be given additional grants to compensate for increases in inflation, so their baseline budget doesn't fall in real terms. Otherwise there really will be frontline cuts.

Both flagship policies are supposed to increase social mobility. But if they aren't open to poorer pupils, this is hard to achieve. Mr Gove supports a non-selective admissions code, but opposes measures that would genuinely open schools to all.

Unless good schools, including the new academies, open a significant number of places to all applicants, using either academic banding or random allocation, the reforms will do nothing for social mobility. Most admissions will continue to be based on siblings and the ability to afford nearby houses. The coalition may not want to force the issue, but it should encourage open admissions through its funding agreements.

Finally, Mr Gove wants to tighten exam standards. He can do so with three simple steps: a single exam board for England, to stop schools shopping around; a big cut in modularity in GCSEs and A-levels, with more marks for final exams; and a reduction in repeats. However, he should be careful to avoid adding complexity to accountability like Mr Balls' report cards.

Mr Gove should also be wary of changing the timing of primary school tests or fiddling with the league tables. By adding English and maths to the five GCSE benchmark, Labour has created a relatively robust measure. More data should be published, but the Government shouldn't obscure data that most people can understand - or that allow its record to be judged.

Get these things right, and the pupil premium and free schools can make a real difference. Get them wrong and coalition ministers will be desperately seeking new initiatives a few years down the line - and wondering why.


Conor Ryan, Former senior education adviser to Tony Blair and David Blunkett, and political blogger.

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