Comment – Martin Rogers

The government’s plans for education reform, while improved, remain a potential threat to the educational achievement of the most disadvantaged children

The Education and Inspections Bill published at the end of February introduces a series of measures that have been controversial since the original white paper first surfaced last October. But what does it offer young people and what are the key concerns?

Ministers are emphatic that the bill will bring major benefi ts to pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds: fairer access to popular schools; better support in school; more “personalisation” of
learning, with the curriculum being tailored to the varied needs of learners; and improvements through the involvement of outside bodies including universities, businesses and churches in the running of so-called “trust schools”.

But it is around the increased independence of such schools – including over their admissions policies – that concerns centre, along with the changing role of local authorities.

In reality, it is too early to tell what the final outcome will bring. It will be up to individual schools to decide whether to acquire a trust, and the signs are that few are interested. The code which
governs admissions arrangements is to be significantly strengthened – but there are major concerns over the arrangements proposed for its implementation. Although schools will have to act “in accordance with” the newly strengthened admissions code, rather than merely “having regard” to it, questions remain over whether the enforcement mechanism will ensure this actually happens.

Many, including the Children’s Services Network, think this part of the bill needs strengthening. While looked-after children are to be given top priority in admissions through new regulations, this is only necessary because trying to achieve this through the code failed. We don’t want similar failures over other groups of disadvantaged and so-called “hard to place” pupils. Afterall, disadvantage remains the most powerful factor that determines how well young people succeed in school – and admissions arrangements determine which children attend which schools, so play a crucial role here. And the pressure on schools to secure the best position in school league tables, meanwhile, will continue to influence their approach to disadvantaged pupils.

But all is not lost. There are measures in the bill that will bring defi nite benefits too. Local authorities, for example, are to be given a new duty to promote the fulfilment by every child of their educational potential – which should, in turn, bring more pressure on schools to do the same. The bill also states that disadvantaged families will be offered support in choosing schools, with free transport available to those who qualify for any of the three nearest suitable secondary schools located between two and six miles from their home. Additional funds will be available for “catch-up” classes for children who have fallen behind by the time they enter secondary school.

Parents will be able to complain if they think standards in their children’s schools are not what they should be, and local authorities will have more powers to intervene earlier and more effectively if schools are causing concern.

For pupils aged between 14 and 19, the bill promises a wider range of options, including a series of new diplomas. Local authorities will also have a duty to promote the well-being of 13- to 19-year-olds by securing access to sufficient provision of educational and recreational leisure-time activities and facilities.

And finally there will be improvements in the nutritional standards of all food and drink provided on school premises, with discretion over charging for food and drink enabling free provision, for example through breakfast clubs.

But, despite all these positive aspects of the bill, real concerns over the worrying parts remain. How  well will the proposed improvements over admissions arrangements be implemented? How many trust schools will appear, and who will benefi t? And how much of a threat do such developments pose to widely welcomed initiatives such as Every Child Matters and the Building Schools for the Future programme? These questions are likely to be asked time and time again as the bill passes through Parliament over the coming weeks.

Martin Rogers is co-ordinator of the Children’s Services Network (formerly The Education Network);

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