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Mind the gap

The education white paper and the market principles behind it are opposed by many Labour MPs. Here, one of them sets out what would be needed to win back their support.

February 1, 2006
5 min read

The stated aim of the education white paper is to break the link between poverty and underachievement at school. The good news is that the Parliamentary Labour Party unanimously supports this aim. The bad news is that key structural reforms in the white paper threaten to achieve the opposite. Labour has invested massively and made big strides in improving educational opportunities for all, so there is some consternation that we find ourselves in a battle to make certain we don’t return to the inequalities and elitism of the post-war system.

The white paper’s untested assumption is that the creation of a body of selfregulating ‘ independent’ schools will raise standards and spread opportunity. Without an effective system of accountability or an overarching duty protecting the interests of all pupils in the locality, I doubt it. The dynamics of such a system may result in enhanced choice for some but it will come at the expense of the rest.

The inexplicable ban on the creation of new community schools, regardless of the wishes of parents, appears to be nothing but ideological dogma and a slap in the face to local authorities. The ending of local democratic accountability over the provision of education services in favour of corporate or charitable involvement is dubious and further erodes the legitimacy of our democratic institutions at a time when they need strengthening.

Not surprisingly, the proposals have received little support in the Labour Party or the education world. Indeed, education secretary Ruth Kelly’s statement in parliament was received rapturously by the Tories and in almost total silence on the Labour benches. Marketisation approaches to public sector reform do not fit comfortably with Labour philosophy and they look increasingly anachronistic in an era when even the Tories are keen to distance themselves from Thatcherism.

The stakes could hardly be higher. With the new Tory leader offering a siren call of ‘support’, and a substantial proportion of the Parliamentary Labour Party in revolt, the only way through is to forge a consensus for education reform that commands overwhelming support in the Labour Party.

This is what we need:

First, strict enforcement of an egalitarian admissions policy. While ministerial assurances that there will be no return to selection are welcome, the dynamics of the reform proposals increase both the incentives to select on academic ability and the potential rewards for doing so. Current safeguards are far too weak. They must be unequivocal, tough and legally enforceable. In an environment where ‘independent’ schools may be tempted to compete,there should be a duty on schools to cooperate.

Second, the ban on the creation of new community schools flies in the face of all the rhetoric about parental choice. It should be abandoned.

Third, we need to preserve a meaningful strategic role for local authorities. The white paper proposes only that they should be ‘champions’ of parental choice and ‘purchasers’, not ‘providers’, of education services. This is confusing sub-Thatcherite market sloganeering, which has generated more heat than light. A Labour Party renewing itself in office should not default to tired and politically alien market solutions in reforming education (or indeed health services), nor should it tolerate failure. The real way forward is to create a deeper democratic involvement in schools and strengthen, not weaken, local accountability.

There is a model that has just recently come out of Ruth Kelly’s own department that could offer a way forward. Clause One of the childcare bill imposes an ‘outcome duty’on all English local authorities. They must increase the well being of all young children in their areas and narrow the gap between them in ‘outcomes’. These outcomes include the child’s economic well being. The Tories voted against ‘narrowing the gap’ between children at committee stage in parliament. Extending this duty from those aged up to five – perhaps all the way to 18 – could create a strategic framework that safeguards the interests of the many, not just the few. It would introduce a radical local authority remit to facilitate more economic equality.

Finally, the trust school proposals have created understandable worries about accountability. Any new model for school organisation needs to be subject to local democratic decision-making. Meaningful local authority and parental involvement needs to be maintained in the governance of all schools,whatever the management arrangements may be. I am sceptical that injecting either a charitable or corporate ethos into school provision is desirable in itself, and even more so that it will automatically raise standards.

Successful Labour public sector reform should trust the people,not the market. The mainstream members of the Labour party would support these safeguards, but they won’t support a return to elitism that leaves the disadvantaged behind.Angela Eagle is the MP for Wallasey, a member of Labour’s national executive committee and one of the authors of the Alternative White Paper.

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