The Tories still stand for privilege

24th October 2008 at 01:00
Michael Gove's pledge here last week that his party will use schools to promote social mobility is only rhetoric

"Let's slay the dragon of inequality," said the Tory schools spokesman Michael Gove on this page last week. I share that aim, although I doubt the weapons he wants to use will succeed.

But let's first of all slay a myth Mr Gove has been peddling in recent weeks. The achievement gap between rich and poor is not widening, as he claims. It is, in fact, narrowing. At GCSE, the gap between children eligible for free school meals and the rest is closing year on year - by 3.5 percentage points in the last four years.

For all the progress we have made, the poorest children are still more likely to leave school without any good qualifications. Disadvantage continues to determine life chances: looked-after children are five times less likely to get five good GCSEs than the average.

So our mission must be to break this historic link between poverty and attainment, and stop poverty passing from one generation to the next. That's why we're investing more in schools in deprived areas, introducing catch-up support for children at risk of falling behind in the early years of primary school, and identifying children with special educational needs earlier.

Our schools should be engines of social mobility, but they can only do so if parents and the whole range of services working with children are engaged with them to tackle all the barriers to learning inside and outside school. The National Challenge is part of this social mobility agenda too because, at its heart, is the belief that every school can succeed for its pupils, no matter how disadvantaged a community.

We should take a closer look at the "radical" policies - cloaked in the language of social mobility and opportunity - Mr Gove proposed last week.

Let's take the Conservative plan - launched with great fanfare by David Cameron last September - to force children who don't make the grade at 11 to repeat their final year of primary school. The Tories called it a "remedial year", so it's no surprise that it was widely condemned by teachers, headteachers and parents at the time.

It would increase primary class sizes and make it impossible for parents to plan ahead. Instead of waiting until 11 and stigmatising the very children who need extra help, we should be intervening earlier. I thought the Tories had gone quiet on this idea, but the Conservative leader was talking it up again over the summer and hailing its apparent success in France.

Not just content with copying the French, the latest Tory idea is the "Swedish model" of school reform. This rejects our approach, in partnership with schools and local government, to focus strategically on getting all schools above the National Challenge threshold, putting in extra investment and new leadership as needed.

Instead, the Tories would leave it to to market forces. Any group of parents wanting to set up a new school will automatically get funding to do so, regardless of local need or circumstances. Engaging parents is, of course, important - and it was this Government which helped set up the first parent promoted school last year and will now fund 100 co-operative trust schools. But if a school in a disadvantaged area needs extra investment or new leadership, simply leaving it to chance and the willingness of parents to set up a new school isn't good enough.

The Tories say they want up to 5,000 of these new schools. But they won't say what would happen to existing schools in areas where the new ones spring up. Nor will they come clean about how they'll fund these schools, which could run into tens of billions.

All the Tories have so far admitted to is slashing Pounds 4.5 billion from the Building Schools for the Future programme to pay for the capital costs. This means cancelling 360 new schools that expected to be rebuilt or refurbished in the next few years.

They have been ducking all these issues, so we'll be asking more questions about their Swedish schools plan. But they're not the only questions raised by Mr Gove's article last week.

Why do the Tories oppose raising the education age to 18 when it's the most disadvantaged and vulnerable young people in society who will benefit from staying on in education, work with training or an apprenticeship?

Why do they oppose diplomas when they're our best chance to break the damaging divide between academic and vocational learning? Why would they slash the Sure Start budget by Pounds 200 million a year when support for families in those earliest years is so crucial? And why are the Tories still arguing among themselves about how many new grammar schools they would or wouldn't open?

The fact is, behind the rhetoric about opportunity and social mobility in Mr Gove's article, lurks the same old Conservative Party determined to preserve opportunity and excellence for those who have it, rather than pursuing opportunity for all. Bring on the debate.

Jim Knight, Minister for Schools and Learners.

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