PM treads on Tory toes to unveil Labour version of parent power

26th February 2010 at 00:00
In direct challenge to the Opposition, Brown hands over right to initiate school leadership change

In the week Gordon Brown was branded a "bully" by the papers, his opposite number and, allegedly, his employees at Number 10, the Prime Minister decided a school would be the best place to make a public appearance.

Flanked by his two closest allies - Schools Secretary Ed Balls and his wife, Sarah - Mr Brown descended on Woodberry Down Community Primary School in Hackney, east London, to unveil Labour's latest set of proposals.

It was the prime ministerial equivalent of scrawling "Tory policies stink - GB rules" on the toilet wall.

At the heart of Mr Brown's speech was the announcement of a new list of "accredited providers" capable of running chains of schools. It was the latest piece of name-calling to come from Number 10. Now we have "chains" to add to academies, trusts, co-operatives and soft and hard federations.

Alongside this, however, was a new policy giving parents "the right to initiate a change in leadership" of their children's schools, in a clear challenge to the Conservatives' proposals.

The Prime Minister said that where a "significant group of parents" are unhappy with the management of their local school, the local authority will be forced to stage a ballot on whether a new "accredited school provider" should be brought in to take over the running of the school.

The plans build on last year's announcement that parents of Year 6 pupils will be surveyed on local school choice. Where there is substantial dissatisfaction, the council will have to put together an action plan that will involve bringing in accredited providers to take over existing schools.

But in an attempt to head off fears that it would lead to a "whingers' charter" the Prime Minister said: "This is not a charter for careless complaints. The vast majority of headteachers in this country do an excellent job."

He added: "This is about the potential to further transform our school system, building on the strength of that leadership, as well as expertise from outside the education service."

Mr Balls later told The TES that the new proposals offered parents a clear choice between Labour and the Conservatives.

"We want to give parents the power to trigger change if they feel it would be good for their school," he said. "The choice is very clear; both we and the Conservatives agree that we need to raise standards, that there is more to do, and that parents' voices are very important in this.

"But we feel this becomes more effective when introduced alongside the school report card.

"The Tories are saying they would reject the school report card and call for busy working parents to set up their own schools and allow the free market to decide on a school's fate."

Full details of Labour's proposals were in short supply, however, lending credence to the claim of Lib Dem education spokesman David Laws that the plans were drawn up "on the back of a fag packet".

According to a source in the Labour camp, consultation with stakeholders, including the social partnership, on the finer points of the Government's proposals has yet to take place. But it is unlikely that the Department for Children, Schools and Families will find an accommodating ear from the Association for School and College Leaders (ASCL).

John Dunford, general secretary of the ASCL, described the plans as "reckless".

"Headteachers and senior staff will be extremely concerned at the Prime Minister's latest version of parent power. It is reckless to suggest that parents should have the right to initiate a change of leadership of the school," he said.

"Such a process will destabilise a school, which may be in the process of making unpopular changes in order to improve its performance."

After his speech on Tuesday, Mr Brown took a tour of Woodberry School with his wife, as if to emphasise his point on the power of parents.

The decision by Messrs Brown and Balls to give parents more say over their schools is a sortie into Tory territory in the fight for undecided voters.

Conservative leader David Cameron and shadow schools secretary Michael Gove have promised to open up the supply side of schools, giving groups of parents the power to establish their own schools, where they feel existing provision is not up to scratch.

Mr Gove dismissed Labour's plans to gain ground in the battle over school choice.

"This is Ed Balls' weak attempt to close down a dividing line he knows he's on the wrong side of," he said.

"Real choice for parents means allowing new schools to open which are free from the control of politicians and therefore properly answerable to parents, not a ballot system allowing a tiny handful of existing schools to federate."

Gordon's key points

The first school leaders to gain the Government's new Accredited Schools kitemark were unveiled, allowing them to run chains of secondary schools through federations, trust schools and academies.

The Government plans to expand the remit of accredited providers to also run chains of primary schools.

Where a "significant" group of parents are dissatisfied with their school's leadership, the local authority will have to ballot all parents on whether they want to bring in one of the Government's "trusted" accredited providers.

The ballot will be brought in alongside the new survey of Year 6 parents, which will canvas opinion on secondary school choice in their local area. Where the survey shows dissatisfaction, the local authority will have to produce an action plan including bringing in accredited providers to take over existing schools.


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