The prospects for disadvantaged children and young people under the Education Bill remain uncertain, says Martin Rogers
The implications of Labour’s Education Bill are impossible to predict with confidence. Already dependent on Conservative MPs to push the embryonic legislation through the second stage of its parliamentary journey, the government could face further difficulties should those same MPs feel the bill is too diluted from the white paper and withdraw their support.
The volatility is compounded by the fact that the central feature of the package – the creation of “independent state schools” (trust schools) – will depend for its success on the decisions of individual schools, few of which so far seem interested, although ministers will hope for a Mexican wave of enthusiasm if they can overcome initial inertia.
In the white paper, the prime minister wrote: “Our reforms must build on the freedoms that schools have increasingly received, but extend them radically. We must put parents in the driving seat for change. And to underpin this change, the local authority must move from being a provider of education to being its local commissioner and the champion of parent choice.”
The bill would enable all schools to acquire a trust (unless, like most church schools, they already have one). Assets would transfer to the trust which, if the school wished, would be able to appoint most of the governors; the staff would transfer to the employment of the governing body; and the school would become its own admissions authority, subject to a newly strengthened admissions code.
Although Tony Blair asserted the benefits of increased independence for schools, greater involvement of external sponsors and more choice for parents, it was left to education secretary Ruth Kelly to raise the need to “deliver for all children, but particularly for those whose family background is most challenging”.
Many proposals are widely supported, such as:
● Catch-up sessions for pupils who are behind.
● Increased personalisation of the curriculum.
● New diplomas for 14 to 19-year-olds.
● Extended free transport for children from poor families to their three nearest secondary schools within two to six miles.
● A tougher admissions code with which schools will have to act in accordance, rather than merely “have regard” to, and the banning of interviews as part of the admission process.
● Better access to educational and recreational opportunities out of school hours.
● A requirement on governing bodies to have regard to local children and young people’s plans.
● The extension of nutritional standards to all food and drink provided in schools.
● Earlier provision of education for pupils excluded from schools.
● A new duty on councils to promote the fulfilment by pupils of their educational potential.
But many doubt that the claimed benefits will extend equally, let alone particularly, to the disadvantaged. Greater collaboration between schools and colleges is encouraged to secure
improved provision for learners, but no changes are proposed to reduce the pressure on schools to protect their league table position in what remains a quasi-market.
So, although it is proposed to make the introduction of banding easier for admissions (reducing the ability of the wealthy to secure access to popular schools by buying into their catchment
areas), there is no apparent incentive for schools to do so.
Some things have improved. In future, regulations and not the code will require all schools to give top priority to looked-after children, and Kelly has indicated that local authorities’ power to direct schools to admit pupils will be extended to ensure that looked-after children will be admitted to the most suitable school at any time. But this change has been required because the code failed to deliver it, and it is important to ensure that similar failings do not affect other groups for whom improvements are intended – so a stronger mechanism for implementing the code is needed than that proposed, with a stronger role for local authorities.(1) And, in deploying their new “choice advisers” for parents, local authorities would do well to focus initially on the 6 per cent or so of children whose parents do not express a preference on their behalf at secondary transfer time.
If local authorities are to act as champions of parental choice and to promote the fulfilment of every child’s educational potential, they will need to take a tough stand on behalf of the disadvantaged. They will need to ensure fair access to all schools (a duty mysteriously absent from the bill, despite being promised in the white paper), and they and inspectors must ensure delivery of schools’ obligations to contribute to all five outcomes laid out in Every Child Matters. They will also need to monitor closely the performance in each of their schools of all disadvantaged groups and, through the new school improvement partners, ensure that any attainment gaps, or other inequalities, are addressed effectively.
The bill also has measures relating to school discipline, including extended provision for voluntary parenting contracts and for application to magistrates’ courts for parenting orders to include pupils who have not been excluded from school and to allow application for parenting orders by schools. Where pupils are excluded, schools will have to make provision for full-time education if the exclusion is for a fixed term, and local authorities will have to do so if it is permanent; this will apply from the sixth day of the exclusion.
For the first five days, parents will be responsible for ensuring that their excluded children are not in a public place during normal school hours; failure to do so will lead to a fine of up to £1,000. A penalty notice system will allow a parent to pay a fixed penalty rather than appear in court. The notices can be issued by a police constable, a council or an authorised member of school staff.
This provision has raised obvious concerns about the potential impact on poor families.
The weeks ahead will clarify ministers’ intentions, as the bill is debated in detail, but it will take longer to establish whether the reforms will have shifted the scales of social justice.
MARTIN ROGERS is co-ordinator of the Children’s Services Network, until recently the Education Network. He was an elected member of the Inner London Education Authority from 1986 to 1990, and chaired its schools committee from 1988 to 1990. He was a governor of several schools for 20 years and has written a book and many articles on education policy.
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The Education and Inspection Bill gives effect to proposals in the white paper, Higher Standards, Better Schools For All, the 14-19 Education and Skills white paper and the Youth Matters green
paper. Controversially, it enables the creation of so-called trust schools, and makes changes to the role of local authorities. This article looks at the potential, though still uncertain, implications for disadvantaged children and young people.
(1) Children’s Services Network is lobbying for such an arrangement; go to www.csn.info
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