Confusing curriculum

    Education is receiving a makeover of Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen
    proportions. Never mind simply giving the woodchip a new lick of
    paint – the government is getting rid of primary and secondary
    schools as we know them. Moving in are extended, specialist, and
    foundation schools and a new range of “academies”.

    The five-year education strategy, published in July,1 is
    certainly ambitious (see box). But when you strip off a few layers
    some startling conclusions start to emerge.

    The first, and most glaringly obvious, is that the government’s
    approach to schools is heading off on a different tangent from the
    rest of the children’s agenda. Ever since Victoria Climbie, all
    agencies involved with children – including health, social services
    and education – have been told to co-operate better and share
    information.

    Yet, while the education strategy rightly points out that
    “children’s services and education have been too
    compartmentalisedÉ services have not been joined up”, the
    five-year strategy seems to do little to remedy the situation.
    Observers argue that the plans for education risk undermining the
    progress already made in reforming other children’s services.

    The Children Bill places a duty on a wide range of agencies –
    including social services, health, prisons, and youth offending
    teams – to co-operate to promote children’s well-being. Yet
    bizarrely, schools are excluded – and the strategy does nothing to
    address this. The rationale is that this area is covered under
    section 175 of the Education Act 2002. But although the act
    contains a duty to promote children’s well-being, it imposes no
    duty to co-operate with other agencies in doing so.

    Lisa Watch, project officer at the Local Government Association
    (LGA), says the government’s lack of consistency is “quite
    stunning”. She says that even before the strategy came out, the LGA
    was “already concerned about the Children Bill and the lack of
    requirements placed on schools”. She argues that schools – where
    most children spend most of their time – are crucial and that not
    explicitly including them is a huge mistake. “As far as we are
    concerned it’s a really important gap. You can’t guarantee that
    children’s services will be any better integrated if schools are
    left out.”

    She says that the government expects schools to co-operate but it
    suggests that it’s not appropriate to put a legal duty on them.
    “Government believes that local education authorities should issue
    tailored guidance. But you can’t ensure that schools follow that
    guidance, particularly in light of a strategy which gives schools
    greater autonomy and independence from the local education
    authority. The expectation that the LEA has any levers is just out
    of the window,” she adds.

    One of the key planks of the strategy is to give individual schools
    more independence. Indeed it says schools will have “an
    unprecedented amount of control and certainty”. While this will, of
    course, be greeted with enthusiasm by the schools themselves, it is
    not going down so well with other children’s services.

    The LGA says that the new three-year budgets for schools would, by
    removing LEAs responsibility for admissions policies and weakening
    the connection between schools and other local services, threaten
    the development of seamless children’s services and dilute local
    democracy.

    Alison King, chair of the children and young people’s board at the
    LGA, says, “A major opportunity to create truly integrated services
    for children across all boundaries is in danger of being lost if
    things go ahead as planned. It is not easy to see how integrated
    children’s services can proceed without the sort of encouragement
    that local authorities can certainly bring to bear in
    schools.”

    King cannot see how the suggestions for children’s centres,
    extended schools, and foundation schools – all integral parts of
    the Children Bill – can be achieved if schools are allowed greater
    freedom. “It’s as though two different people have been working on
    two projects [integrated children’s services and the education
    strategy], creating parallel universes.”

    Joined-up working, so exalted by the government, is a reasonable
    request, she adds, “but it’s difficult to do when coping with a
    government which seems to be such a stranger to it.”

    However, Paul Roberts, strategic adviser for education and
    children’s services at the Improvement and Development Agency,
    believes that as well as potential tensions between the strategy
    and the Children Bill, there is also some congruence. “The strategy
    portrays a local authority role about advocacy for children, carers
    and communities. That’s also an important role in the context of
    the Children Bill.”

    But there’s a potential tension between the Children Bill and the
    strategy unless the council has sufficient leverage on some
    specific areas, Roberts says. “To ensure there’s equity within the
    system it’s vital that schools with increasing autonomy vigorously
    apply admissions and exclusion arrangements that are fair for all.”
    With the proposal to allow successful schools to expand, planning
    and provision of places must be transparent, he adds.

    According to the strategy, extended schools, both primary and
    secondary, “will increasingly act as hubs for community services,
    including children’s services”. But many are sceptical. Watch says:
    “There is nothing in the strategy which would encourage schools to
    want to look at the broader role it could play in the community, on
    the lines of extended schools. This goes against everything in
    Every Child Matters and the thrust of the Children Bill, so doesn’t
    really fit in with the government’s plans for children’s
    services.”

    Pam Hibbert, principal policy officer at children’s charity
    Barnardo’s, agrees. On the one hand there is the extended-school
    philosophy that focuses on community-based services, working
    together with more than just education, while on the other the
    education strategy gives schools wider powers to select and exclude
    pupils, she says.

    Why would a school choose “extended” status if it could have
    foundation status instead, allowing it to own the building and
    land, employ staff directly, forge partnerships with charities and
    others, and administer its own admission policies?

    “With foundation schools, again we are into increasing separation
    between good schools that are able to be selective, and those that
    have no option and end up becoming extended schools. That seems to
    us quite wrong,” says Hibbert.

    “Clearly, the schools that will become more independent and chose
    to opt out will be in catchment areas of relative affluence. It’s
    almost like education is moving into a market economy rather than
    being a universal right,” she adds.

    However, Barnardo’s has some reservations about extended schools
    too, in terms of why the policy should apply only to some schools.
    “All schools should be able to respond in a holistic way to
    children’s needs, and not just be about academic achievement, says
    Hibbert.

    “The driving force behind education policy, despite the holistic
    approach of extended schools, continues to be academic achievement.
    If all schools are measured only on academic attainment and
    extended schools are doing good holistic work but not getting those
    academic results, they will be seen as failing unless we look at
    how else we measure school achievement,” she adds

    All in all, just like a room designed by Llewelyn-Bowen, the
    education strategy’s clash of conflicting ideas and themes somehow
    doesn’t quite work.

    1 Department for Education and
    Skills, Five year Strategy for Children and Learners,
    DfES, 2004

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