The government’s plans to reform England’s education system were heavily trailed in advance of the publication of its white paper Higher Standards, Better Schools for All, but that did not make them any easier to digest for many in social care who feel the proposals will work against the most disadvantaged children.
Education secretary Ruth Kelly had a taste of the opposition to the plan to encourage all state schools to turn independent when she was met with cheers from the Conservative benches and silence from her own side as she set out her reforms.
The government wants to create a system of “independent, non-fee paying state schools” that will be given the freedom to set their own admissions policies, unhindered by any local authority control. Schools will be encouraged to set up a trust responsible for their overall running, which, like city academies, could be backed by private sponsors.
The paper proposes a fundamental change in councils’ overall role in education; no longer service providers, they will take on what is described as a commissioning role, mediating between parents and schools. There will also be a new duty on them to “promote choice, diversity and fair access”.
There are proposals to overcome the problems faced by vulnerable children posed by introducing market forces into education. Free transport – to be financed and run by the local authority – will be available within a six-mile radius for disadvantaged children, while advisers, also funded by councils, will help ensure parents have information about the choices available to them.
But the one constant criticism that emerges from across the social care sector is the potential for serious conflict between the reforms and Every Child Matters policies.
While the white paper’s authors may have been confident that free transport would be welcomed, there are fears that the policy may lead to further ghettoisation in the education system.
Children’s charity Barnardo’s, while welcoming “much of the sentiment” behind the policy, believes children travelling to attend schools in other areas could become alienated from their own communities. Children from disadvantaged areas could also face difficulties in not being able to afford expensive uniforms and school trips in their new schools, it adds.
“The consequences for communities could be devastating,” says Neera Sharma, principal policy officer at the charity, who says there is a danger that facilitating movement away from schools in deprived areas goes against the government’s neighbourhood renewal agenda.
“What parents want is an assurance that their local school will provide the best possible education for their child,” she says.
Paul Dornan, head of policy at the Child Poverty Action Group, also points out that clearly marked subsidised buses could risk exposing children to the “ravages of stigma and bullying”.
Stephen Mason, president elect of the National Association of Social Workers in Education, asks what will happen when struggling schools, particularly those in disadvantaged areas, fail to improve within a year and a competition takes place to decide who runs the school. “My worst fear is that in the most deprived areas there should be investment and stability, but instead we may see instability, with communities weakened by constantly changing schools and the better schools outside of the area still being able to cream off the most able pupils.”
Barnardo’s questions the extent to which advisers can help less well-off parents. The government has pledged £12m to fund the posts and expects councils to have built “networks of advisers” by 2008, but there are concerns that many parents, especially those whose first language is not English, will find it daunting to search a large list of options.
There is also a growing consensus about the dangers of allowing trust schools to dictate their own admissions policy, with councils left with no power to enforce the government’s suggested “fairbanding” system – under which pupils will have to sit a non-verbal reasoning test before being placed into one of nine ability groups.
Kevin Crompton, chair of the Association of Directors of Education and Children’s Services, says: “We don’t want to create a free-for-all in admissions.” Although sceptical of the value of independent state schools over the current system, Crompton says he would be “optimistic” the proposals could work if children’s trusts were given a central role in local authorities’ commissioning processes.
Some are optimistic that the reforms will not be as damaging as feared. John Chowcat, general secretary of the Association of Professionals in Education and Childcare Trusts, says that while the government should be criticised for not engaging in enough pilots or evidence-gathering, it is important not to get too caught up with apparent conflicts between the theory behind Every Child Matters and the white paper’s proposals.
But the Local Government Association warns that an increasingly competitive system will have problems for the most vulnerable children, including those in care. It is demanding that the government gives the power back to councils to negotiate admissions policies in existing schools, and allows them to negotiate in new schools beyond the three-year term set out in the paper. If not, the LGA argues, schools will be able to disengage from the communities they should serve.
There are also concerns about the impact of the reforms on children with special educational needs. Mason says there is a danger that parents actively engaged in managing schools will resist admitting pupils with difficulties, and that it may bring a return to segregated schooling for this group of children.
He seems to sum up the fear of many in the children’s and social care sectors who are opposed to the government’s direction of travel when he says: “I am worried that we may end up with a situation where even more children are outside the education system where they are difficult to place.”
Higher Standards, Better Schools for All from www.dfes.gov.uk
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