Unknown dangers in leap of faith

23rd September 2005 at 01:00
When Labour came to power in 1997 the mantra was "standards not structures". There would be no wholesale reorganisation of schools, simply a relentless focus on raising attainment.

While teachers felt the intense heat of ministers' zero tolerance of failure and local government feared losing its influence over state schools, most people in education felt Tony Blair was adopting a more pragmatic approach than his predecessors. If only he would dismantle the market reforms introduced by Margaret Thatcher and John Major, everything would be fine.

Eight years on, it is clear Mr Blair never had any such intention. Indeed, with another whirl of reforms about to be announced, it is plain the Prime Minister is determined on a wholesale restructuring of secondary education.

As he put it in a recent speech, he wants to "escape the straitjacket of the traditional comprehensive" by promoting a "spectrum" of specialist schools, foundation schools and city academies.

An important part of the spectrum will be church schools, which the Government envisages will play a leading role supporting struggling neighbourhood schools. This support will be offered through new federations that are expected to develop rapidly in Labour's third term, putting the future of local education authorities in doubt. If the market's role in this emerging system remains controversial, so too is the growing influence of the churches. As we report today (page 1), the Church of England's growing involvement in secondary education is causing division even within its own ranks. The Government's own admissions watchdog is sceptical that a Christian ethos equates to higher academic standards. There is evidence that church schools do better in league tables only because they take fewer pupils from poor backgrounds.

Yet despite the doubts, more secular schools are likely to convert to church status. They will do so for mixed reasons, some spiritual and moral and some to strengthen their position in the marketplace. Will standards rise as a result? Perhaps. Is it a sensible experiment or a reckless leap of faith? We are about to find out.

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