New schools of thought

11 Feb 10
Labour and the Tories are squaring up for the coming election battles over education, and are scathing about each other’s plans. But how much of this is posturing and how much substance? Conor Ryan investigates
11 February 2010

By Conor Ryan

Labour and the Tories are squaring up for
the coming election battles over education,
and are scathing about each other’s plans.
But how much of this is posturing and how much substance? Conor Ryan investigates

The economy might be the big election issue but another equally bitter battle is being fought over education, as two Oxford contemporaries traduce each other’s policies. Schools Secretary Ed Balls scorns his Conservative shadow, Michael Gove, for planning a ‘free for all’ and ‘spending cuts’, while Gove denounces his opponent’s ‘bureaucratic’ policies and ‘dumbed-down’ curriculum. In truth, both policies throw up serious questions.

There are differences in approach. Balls warms to local authorities more than Gove. He has chipped away at the freedoms of academies – the state-funded independent schools that were the centrepiece of former prime minister Tony Blair’s school reforms – while rapidly expanding their number. His legislation would entrench Labour policies in ­‘guarantees’ to parents.

Gove has pledged to ‘break down barriers’ – often set by local authorities – to allow new schools and free academies. His ‘draft manifesto’ on education confirmed plans to support 220,000 new school places in the poorest communities.

In fact, many of Gove’s ideas build on Labour’s policy architecture. Allowing ‘outstanding’ schools to become academies provided that they support weaker schools replicates a model already adopted by Outwood Grange College in Wakefield and Greensward School in Hockley, Essex. A requirement that failing schools become academies within a year unless they improve echoes Labour’s National Challenge, aimed at lifting the minimum achievement in secondary schools.

Even Gove’s plan ‘to break down barriers to entry so that any good education provider can set up a new academy school’ reflects a growing role for not-for-profit sponsors in academies and trust schools. So much so that Gove’s internal critics argue that unless he allows profit-making providers, as in Sweden, he will find it hard to effect the radical change he seeks.

According to Anna Fazackerley, head of the education unit at centre-Right think-tank Policy Exchange: ‘A significant number of potential multi-academy sponsors say they have been put off by the inability to make a profit.’

However, Gove is keen to avoid charges of ‘privatisation’ in an election campaign.

Equally, teacher training reforms dubbed ‘brazenly elitist’ by Conservative leader David Cameron are less radical than their sales pitch. The headlines focused on a plan to bar the dwindling number of third-class degree holders from teaching but the main pledges echo Labour ideas. Paying off the student loans of top mathematics and science graduates is worth around £2,000 a year to a new teacher, but would replace £5,000 golden hellos. The Tories would also expand ­Labour’s Teach First programme for top graduates and rebrand existing programmes to attract experienced ­graduates as Teach Now.

Bigger differences lie in the parties’ approaches to funding and accountability. Labour has significantly increased spending on schools: real-terms funding per pupil has risen by 85% since 1997, while capital spending has grown six-fold. And, although this spending spree is coming to an end, Chancellor Alistair Darling was persuaded by Balls to announce that school spending would increase by 0.7% a year in real terms in 2011/12 and 2012/13.

Balls doesn’t rule out cuts in quangos or in other education programmes, though he has yet to emulate Lord Mandelson’s university and college cuts. The National College for the Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services has urged efficiencies in schools through federations and structural change, and the Department for Children, Schools and Families has ­published its own money-saving guide.

This has angered heads’ leaders. Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, says: ‘Heads, quite rightly, feel insulted by this attempt to decapitate schools.’ A freeze on teachers’ pay and lower employer ­pension contributions also seem likely.

Yet while Labour has given some commitments to school spending, the Tories have not. Without such guarantees, they are likely to require even bigger cuts than Labour, which will make it harder to afford their two main commitments – the extra school places in poor areas and paying schools a premium for disadvantaged pupils.

The Tories say they need to make these pledges because Labour has failed on social mobility. A Higher Education Funding Council for England report did show that a fifth of the poorest youngsters now go to university, compared with an eighth in 2004. But the proportion of better off undergraduates has grown slightly faster, so the gap has not narrowed.

In terms of secondary schools, Balls says his National Challenge programme is making a difference. Its target is that by 2012, 30% of pupils in all schools should gain five good GCSEs, including English and mathematics. In 1997, 1,600 schools (half the total) did not achieve this. By 2009, the number had fallen to 247, and schools in the poorest areas are improving twice as fast as those in better-off areas.

However, Gove argues that Labour’s approach is not feeding through into university success. Despite the reported improvements, he calculates that the number of boys at Eton public school with three As at A-level in 2009 – the minimum required for elite university courses – is still greater than the total number of boys in the state school system on free school meals who gain three A-levels.

His concerns are shared by Alan Milburn, the former Labour Cabinet minister. In a December report, he said: ‘If the growth in social exclusivity is not checked, it will be more and more middle-class children, not just working-class ones, who will miss out.’ He wants radical measures to improve social mobility, such as the pupil premium and vouchers for parents in areas with lots of failing schools. Prime Minister Gordon Brown rejected Milburn’s more controversial ideas, but backed other proposals, such as paid internships to improve access to professional jobs.

To be fair, more poor pupils – ­measured as those receiving free school meals – are going to good state schools, according to a 2008 study by the Sutton Trust. The number attending the top 200 comprehensives has risen by 44% in the past ten years, although the overall number of children receiving free school meals has fallen by 18%. However, while the numbers are up, the proportion of poor pupils in those schools is still only 7.6%, against the national average of 13.6%.

Gove argues that a pupil premium would encourage good schools to ‘work particularly hard to attract’ poorer pupils. The Liberal Democrats agree: their leader Nick Clegg confirmed last week that he would spend £2.5bn on the premium, funded from ‘savings’ in the education budget and limiting tax credits.

But there are big questions over how the Tories would fund the premium and their other ambitions. They have said they would divert funding from Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme to pay the capital costs of their 220,000 new school places. But this would be a costly intervention.

Primary rolls are starting to rise again, but secondary rolls are set to fall by 55,000 until 2015 before rising again. Gove has confirmed that he plans to take school place planning out of local authority hands, and approve new schools directly in Whitehall. This will effectively encourage surplus places, so the extra ­revenue costs could exceed a billion pounds a year.

The pupil premium could prove even more expensive, as many believe even the Clegg figure underestimates what it would cost. At present, schools in deprived areas or with large numbers of deprived pupils get the extra funds based on national and local formulas, whereas other schools with a smaller proportion of disadvantaged pupils get nothing extra to pay for them. This means there are only two ways to fund the policy: find extra money at a time when cuts seem likely or redistribute existing budgets away from disadvantaged inner-city schools to more prosperous suburban and shire schools and local authorities.

The Conservatives have not said how big their premium would be, but if it is to be introduced at any meaningful level – many say this should be an extra £2,000 or 50% of per pupil funding – the redistribution could be substantial. Such changes can produce a huge outcry from the ­losers and little thanks from the winners, as Charles Clarke found as education secretary in 2003 when he made more modest reforms to make school funding fairer. So significant financial compensation would be required to reduce such losses. Doing this at a time of financial restraint would be no easy task.

Alongside funding, an ideological battle is taking place over how to make schools accountable for pupil performance. The National Union of Teachers and the National Association of Head Teachers are balloting their members to boycott this year’s English and mathematics tests for 11-year-olds. Both Balls and Gove have tried to appease the unions with respective proposals to increase teacher assessments and test children at the start of secondary school instead.

But whoever wins the election, schools will have to be more accountable to those they serve.
Labour’s Children, Schools and Families Bill proposes minimum ‘guarantees’ for parents and pupils in everything from ‘good behaviour, strong discipline, order and safety’ for pupils to opportunities for parents to be involved in their child’s learning. Many of the proposals included in the 88-page consultation document ­issued after the Bill’s second reading reflect existing entitlements. Those that are new include a promise of one-to-one ­tuition, tougher home-school agreements and a report card on the schools for parents to supplement existing league tables.

However, many schools believe that the legislation is too bureaucratic and lacks the money to fund the guarantees or the means to enforce them. Dr John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told MPs: ‘[There is] potential in an increasingly litigious society for parents to take up an awful lot of head teachers’ time in disputing what are rather uncertain and woolly guarantees.’

The Tories would rely instead on published data, including results from new reading tests for six year-olds, and tougher Ofsted inspections.

But an absence of legal levers could prove problematic when it comes to what schools teach. The headmaster of ­Harrow public school, Barnaby Lenon, echoed Gove recently with claims that too many state schools were cramming their pupils with ‘worthless qualifications’ to boost their league table rankings. And the Tories have argued that the increase in the proportion of pupils gaining five good GCSEs, including English and mathematics, from 35% in 1997 to 50% in 2009 is devalued because pupils are ­taking easier exams.

The Conservatives would exclude vocational qualifications from league tables and could give extra credit to harder subjects. Yet despite arguing that schools should teach all pupils languages and history to age 16, they would not require them to do so. Instead, they hope a combination of league table, Ofsted and ­parental pressure would do the trick.

Some schools would choose a more academic curriculum, but a growing number prefer to focus on employability and research skills. And the fate of ­languages provides a cautionary tale. When Estelle Morris, as education secretary, decided in 2002 to give schools the freedom to drop modern language lessons for 14 to 16-year-olds, she urged them to apply the change selectively as a way of enabling a minority of pupils to do more vocational subjects.

In fact, the proportion of pupils sitting a language GCSE has fallen from a peak of 78% in 2001 to 44% in 2009. Recent pressure from ministers and published data have not increased the numbers.
‘The lesson,’ says Morris, ‘is that the consequence of giving schools greater freedom – on this or on anything else – is that they will sometimes make decisions with which the rest of us might not be thrilled.’

Both parties face problems with their attempts to create dividing lines. Balls’ bid to win parents’ support risks unleashing new bureaucracy on schools at a time of tough spending choices. Gove might find that exhortation is not enough to promote freedom and tougher standards simultaneously.
And as both parties’ plans come under increasing scrutiny, they will face growing pressure to explain exactly how they will fund and achieve their ambitions.

Conor Ryan is a former senior education adviser to Tony Blair and David Blunkett. He blogs at

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