If ridiculous scaremongering reaction were a measure for the strength of a new idea, the Tories ought to be well pleased with their new plans for primary schools. Beverly Hughes, the Government Children's Minister, has described them as "highly dangerous", and Jim Knight, the Schools Minister, claimed the plans would "send a chill down the spines of parents". Chris Keats, General Secretary of the NASUWT (a teachers union) offered perhaps the most blatant indication that the Tory plans were generally good news for pupils and parents, with her observation that "... this proposal for primary schools completes the Tories' blueprint for the dismantling of state education. These plans are the naked marketisation of education and will place thousands of children and young people at the mercy of private, voluntary and independent providers."
Such comments are a real shame. There is an important debate to be had about the future of state run education. It is one which, to their credit, New Labour tried to start in 1997, and one which, to their credit, the Conservative party wish to have now. Just as Tony Blair and his education advisors saw in the past, and Michael Gove sees now, history, evidence and intuition suggests increased school independence and less centralised control is the next step in the development of taxpayer funded education, critical to dragging our school system into the 21st century. But opponents (invariably from the left) have valid points too, not least that perhaps it is a good thing that Governments retain control over the levers of societal change, in this case education. There is then a real debate to be had. The point of a democracy is that all sides of the argument are presented, and the people decide. Sadly though, it seems that some are not willing to make their case, choosing instead to rely on fear and scaremongering to push voters and parents into acquiescence. These would be the people who claimed on the weekend that Tory plans would send a chill down the spines of parents. In truth, it is they themselves that are running scared.
Before we go too far, let's consider the Tory plans themselves: "state primary schools which have demonstrated excellent performance and
leadership will be given academy freedoms over their curriculum,
budget, staff and school hours. They will be accountable to parents for
behaviour and standards, and would be freed from local authority
control." (Specific details will follow in a Green Paper).
These plans push on the Academy program begun by this Labour Government, devolving certain administrative and curricula decisions down to the schools themselves. Schools remain (despite suggestions to the contrary) funded by the taxpayer. This is is still very much 'state' education, just delivered in a new way. Private and charitable organisations are indeed invited into partnership with the state, bringing extra financial resources in return for some say over what and how it is taught. So far fears that this private influence would see a rise in questionable teaching (such as creationism over evolution) have not been seriously realised.
The general hope behind such plans is that parents will have the opportunity to participate more in the running of schools, and that this opportunity will be taken up. Currently, City Academies do not have to follow the entire national curriculum (only the core English, Maths and Science are mandatory) and School heads have more leeway in respect to when the school opens and shuts, how much teachers are paid, and what 'non-statutory' central government guidance they follow. They are, in short, more independent of central government, free to pursue an educational course as much set by the wishes of parents, teachers and pupils as by central government. Conventional state schools, needless to say, are keen for these freedoms to be extended to them too. (Please note that while a couple of teachers' unions suggest that comprehensive schools don't want the academy freedoms, by far the largest teachers' union does. As on most issues, teachers do not speak on this with one voice).
The actual results from City Academies are mixed though, with data often showing only marginal improvements in results. The Tories (for obvious reasons) and New Labour educationalists (again for obvious reasons) argue that the City Academy program has been a great success. Conon Ryan, Tony Blair's education advisor, has urged Labour to adopt the Tory proposals for primary schools, claiming that: "Labour's academies programme - for that's what it is - is successfully
raising standards in many secondary schools, and there is no reason why it
shouldn't be extended to primary schools". Lord Adonis, a former Labour education minister (now transport), is also rumoured to be a fan.
But the truth is that the Academy program was not really enough in the first place, and has - since its creation - been reigned in by the manic controlling tendencies of Ed Balls and Gordon Brown, who are both fundamentally opposed to the idea of the Government relinquishing any control. The full potential of the scheme was never going to be realised while the Department for Children, Schools and Families worked assiduously to undermine it. In fact, in these circumstances it is impressive that the Academies have achieved any improvement at all.
What was missing from the original plans, and what is missing from the Tory primary school plans, is a mechanism to establish genuine competition between schools, as well as the ability for parents to select one school over another. This would indeed be a radical shift, and it could not be imposed on England overnight (just as it hasn't been in other countries). What is needed is pilot scheme though, covering one or two Local Education Authorities (LEAs), where Tory plans are introduced alongside an entirely new system of school funding, wherein parents have a choice over which school got their child's allocated funding. The current system props up poor schools while unintentionally privileging the few children who do get into the good schools. It simply doesn't make sense. Everyone should have the ability to go to the good schools, but in order to do so, the good schools have to be able to take over the bad ones. Putting the financial choice in the hands of parents would start this process.
So the Tory plans for primary school academies are a step in the right direction, but only a step. Schools at every level must be freed from central control, but beyond that they need to experience the hard realities of the market. None of this has to mean an end to British state education, just an improvement to it, as Chris Keats remarks above about this being the beginning of the end for British state education are as wrong as they are ridiculous; they would simply mean the end to a system over which she and her union has control, much more control than parents. No-one - at least no-one who wants to be taken seriously - can suggest the primary school system is doing well. But as the remarks from the Government ministers and Union leaders make clear (as similar ones did in the
1990's and early 2000's) there are plenty of people who are quite willing
to let state education - whether primary or secondary - continue in its
drift into mediocrity. For the sake of their own interests, be it
political or financial, these people are willing to see children be failed by the state sponsored system.
British state education does not need 'shock therapy', but it does need change. More a Chinese post communist economic strategy than a Russian. While far from perfect the Tory plans - along with Labour's original academy programme - are steps in the right direction. There will need to be more steps, but at least both acknowledge the direction in which policy should go.