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Burnham For Mayor

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Guardian Article on the Education Bill

This week, Michael Gove will ask MPs to give him more than 50 new powers to control almost every single aspect of the school system in England.

The Education Secretary wants to tell children what subjects they should study, teachers what and how they should teach and local communities what kind of schools they must have.

Before voting on Tuesday, MPs might usefully reflect on Mr Gove’s record in office and consider whether it’s ever healthy to have so much power vested in one person.

His Bill is an audacious and unprecedented power-grab from pupils, parents and the public. Under the Bill, families will lose the ability to challenge decisions about admissions and exclusions and the right to complain locally. The National Children’s Bureau has said it “chips away at hard-won parental rights”.

In this way, the Bill has a bearing on the hopes of every parent and life chances of every child. But it has particular implications for the most vulnerable children.

Parents of children with disabilities and special needs already face a battle to get a good education. This Bill stacks the odds against them even further. Poor behaviour can arise from failure to identify or support a child’s special needs, and yet, in future, any exclusions that may result will be much harder to challenge.
Michael Gove says he wants councils to champion children with special educational needs. But the Tory-led Education Select Committee has said that as the local authority role in education diminishes, some pupils could be left “without access to critical support”.

In areas like Special Educational Needs we need decent local coordination. It was for precisely these reasons that last year’s Liberal Democrat Conference fired a shot across the Government’s bows with a trenchant endorsement of localism in education.

Where are those voices now and why are they not howling down a Bill that strips councils of any meaningful role? It makes a mockery of Government claims to support localism.

Such is the Government’s rush to grab new powers that MPs are being asked to vote on this Bill without seeing the long-promised Special Educational Needs Green Paper. That cannot be right. It sends a clear message to those parents that their kids are an afterthought.

It is abundantly clear that the Secretary of State’s plans are not drawn up with the most vulnerable children in mind, nor indeed the 50 per cent of children unlikely to go to University.

The new English Baccalaureate takes choice away from students over what they should study. Narrowing the curriculum in this way goes against the grain – from the Education Select Committee to the Hong Kong Education Minister, experts and parents are calling for a broad and balanced curriculum.

Outrageously, the English Bacc has been applied retrospectively to schools. As a result, it may have already unfairly damaged their reputation and ability to survive in the dog-eat-dog education world that Gove’s Bill creates.

No evidence has been presented to justify a subject selection which prizes Latin over engineering. But last week, Michael Gove offered this explanation: "This reflects the subjects the Russell group universities have said they value most."

Labour focused relentlessly on driving up standards in the basics, with the literacy hour and 1:1 tuition for kids who fell behind. Of course we support academic rigour, and children’s ability to choose these five subjects. But I also support a student’s right to choose to study subjects that interest them most.
This centralising tendency, which reduces choice and control for parents and pupils, also leads Michael Gove to prioritise his pet projects over raising standards for all. It leaves Government promises of autonomy and localism in tatters – and observers scratching their heads at a Secretary of State in danger of collapsing under the weight of his own contradictions.

Free Schools are approved by the Secretary of State, with no requirement for groups setting them up to consult widely with the local population. There is a complete lack of transparency over funding, with many communities believing that existing local schools are being left to fall into disrepair to allow free schools to be set up.

Ideology rather than need is driving the allocation of public money. There is no evidence that the Free Schools policy will drive up standards - at worst, as experience in Sweden suggests, they will have a negative impact.

Parents having influence over local schools is important, and how to achieve this will be at the heart of Labour’s policy review. But this is an ideologically driven programme which too often will allow a free-for all which will result in schools with poor facilities and even untrained teachers.

In his obsession to drive through structural reforms – which are meaningless for the vast majority of parents – Michael Gove is neglecting what really matters. Parents want high standards in the basics, within a rich and balanced curriculum, and high quality teaching in every classroom – which this Bill has no plan to deliver.
He is neglecting his responsibility to build a curriculum and school system with all children in mind. He is inflicting an ideological experiment on pupils with no pilots, no consultation and no evidence to support it.
The vision is of a 1950s curriculum in a 19th Century school system - a free-for-all where parents have no guarantees, where there’s a lack of protection for the most vulnerable children and where for every winner there’s a loser.

On Tuesday, Parliament can put the brakes on Mr Gove and stop him from taking a huge gamble with the life chances of our children. Let’s hope it does.