Reform goes full speed ahead

30th September 2005 at 01:00
Education Secretary Ruth Kelly faces a tough challenge when the white paper is published, writes Mike Baker

Anyone harbouring hopes that this academic year will be quieter than recent ones, was put straight by Mr Blair's start-of-term speech, delivered with symbolic intent at an academy.

Teachers may feel that the pace of reform has been brisk enough since 1997, but the Prime Minister thinks the good ship Education Reform can squeeze out a few extra knots.

In an aside to send a chill through the nation's staffrooms he said: "If anything, we have not pushed fast and hard enough." Downing Street believes there is still some way to go to reach the sunlit uplands of the "post-comprehensive era" and Mr Blair wants to get there before handing over to his successor. The message was clear: the next stage of reform is not limited to creating 200 academies but extends to adapting the whole school system to an academy template. It is the same Trojan horse approach that we saw with the specialist schools programme.

So, Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, has a tough year ahead. The white paper, due in late October, is supposed to deliver nothing less than the creation of "a genuinely comprehensive education system". Yet what does this mean?

After all, Labour has no plans to abolish selection where it exists, or to scrap the remaining grammar schools. As far as it is possible to establish Ms Kelly's definition of "comprehensive" schooling, it seems to involve an education system that serves everyone equally.

If that sounds somewhat platitudinous, then the Education Secretary insists that Labour's reforms would remain incomplete until they have improved social mobility. Yet, the achievement gap between rich and poor has not only failed to narrow, but on some indicators has actually widened.

So, the ambitious aim of the white paper will be to ensure that families on low or middle incomes have as much chance as the better-off of getting into good schools.

But will Ruth Kelly go as far as favouring positive discrimination in school admissions to favour poorer pupils? And how can you deliver social engineering in a system that gives greater autonomy to every state school?

This "choice" agenda will partly come through the expansion of academies.

The model is, quite deliberately, the independent sector: uniforms, strong independent leadership, a distinctive ethos and freedom from bureaucracy.

The other main theme of the white paper will be "personalised education".

Schools will be expected to use the flexibilities of the workforce reforms to provide a personalised curriculum, especially tailored catch-up programmes for children who fall behind.

This is what PPA time, and the expansion of classroom assistants, is all about: how else can teachers find the time to devise a bespoke curriculum for each pupil? The unions may see PPA as about workload; the Government sees it as an essential pre-requisite of personalised education.

There will also be a further push on maths and English. Even one of the architects of the Government's numeracy and literacy strategies admits privately that "a whole extra stage is needed". He believes schools are still failing to spend enough time on these basics in key stage 1.

The white paper will encourage new providers to enter the state system.

Some of these will be private education management companies. As a former Downing Street adviser explains, new providers in education, as in business, are seen as the "drivers of improvement". He believes this will promote the choice agenda, as "more providers means more places and that is good for equity".

The white paper will also encourage more faith schools. The London bombings have not diminished enthusiasm for more state-funded Muslim schools. Yet more academies and faith schools will highlight a fundamental tension in the twin aims of diversity and comprehensive education.

One of the biggest complaints of supporters of the comprehensive ideal is that faith schools and academies make a mockery of comprehensive intakes.

The head of one of the country's most successful comprehensives complains privately that his local faith schools select pupils only from committed and supportive homes and thus avoid taking difficult pupils.

The White Paper will give Ofsted new powers to respond to parental complaints, creating a mechanism to enable disgruntled parents to trigger an inspection. Ofsted will also get powers to close failing schools rather than, as now, simply recommending closure to local education authorities.

Ministerial desks will also resound to the thud of several heavy reports this autumn.

The task force on behaviour will report by late October. Under its chairman, Sir Alan Steer, the group appears to be moving towards the idea of a national charter, setting out the rights and responsibilities of schools, pupils and parents. The number of head- teachers on the group, and Sir Alan's common sense and pragmatism, should alleviate teachers' fears that Ms Kelly's focus on parents might stress parental rights rather than responsibilities.

Jim Rose's review of the teaching of reading will report in November.

Insiders say it is unlikely to over-turn the whole literacy strategy but refine it.

Meanwhile, even as all this policy is being formulated, schools must adapt to the many changes that are already in the pipeline from the 2005 Education Act.

The workforce reforms have started peacefully enough. Yet the PPA requirements could blow up in the Government's face if grass-roots problems emerge.

The review of staffing structures, and the replacement of management allowances by teaching and learning responsibility payments, will dominate this term, causing anxiety for staff.

New Ofsted inspection arrangements have begun. One-third of schools will have to adapt to shorter, but more frequent, visits from the inspectors this year. At the same time, schools are entering the new era of self-evaluation. There will also be "school profiles" to complete, with a new flow of performance data for parents.

What about LEAs? Tony Blair has said he wants them to be "commissioners", rather than providers, of services. Council leaders ask how they can ensure fairness within an increasingly autonomous school system - how do they prevent academies from cherry-picking the best pupils and poaching the best staff?

Ms Kelly knows she must offer the Treasury both reforms and results if she is to win extra cash in the next comprehensive spending review, which is being described, inevitably, as the toughest so far.

There is growing concern in further education that the lifelong learning agenda has shrunk to just a skills strategy. The cuts in adult leisure classes, at the expense of skills-related courses for 16 to 19-year-olds, could yet produce a political backlash. But the Government will insist that, in a tight-spending regime, it is about hard choices and basic skills must be the priority. The world of FE is also awaiting the Foster review on the future of colleges.

So, instead of "education, education, education", the current Government's triple priorities are more varied for the forthcoming year: academies, personalised education and youth skills.

Mike Baker is education correspondent for BBC News


October. School meals guidelines. Education white paper. Behaviour task force report

November. Phonics report. Foster review of FE

DecemberJanuary. Parliamentary Bill. Management allowances end

2006. Three-year school funding. Progress on post qualifiction admissions


More say for parents over child's learning. Parental power to trigger Ofsted inspections. Powers for Ofsted over school closures. Personalised curriculum. New freedoms for successful schools. Easier foundation status for primaries. New providers to enter state system.

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