Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Speech to Education 2011 Conference - 17th May

'Today I’d like to talk to you about this Government’s approach to education in the context of their wider public service reforms, and to set out why this is a break with reforms under the Labour Government.

In health and education, the Government has sought to imply that their reforms are simply a continuation of Labour's. They borrow our language of reform - Foundation Trusts in health; Academies in education.
But this is all cleverly designed to obscure a very different direction of travel towards an ideological free-for-all. Far from a continuation, it all amounts to a bastardisation of Labour's public service reforms.

In Government, we too made schools and hospitals more autonomous and independent. In the main that is a good thing, within a system where collaboration and partnership are encouraged.

So we agree - it’s not a question of change or no change, but a question of whether the changes proposed are the right ones.

But we were always clear: if you plan more freedom for providers, it must be accompanied by a corresponding empowerment of the public, and a greater ability for users of services to hold providers to account.

Without this, you are in real danger of presiding over provider-led reforms - a free-for-all with an accountability deficit, where power is taken off the public and handed back to the system.
I believe this is what the Government is creating in health and education.

In health, hospitals are being set up as stand-alone business units with no system-wide bail-outs, and at the same time NHS national waiting standards are being removed. The effect of this is that patients could be made to wait longer to meet financial targets, and there is little the public can do about it.

In education, this Government is severely weakening the rights of parents by watering down the admissions system and removing our guarantees, like access to one-to-one tuition.

The Education Bill is removing local admissions forums and weakening the powers of the schools adjudicator to enforce the Admissions Code. We also hear that the Government may be bringing forward a diluted Admissions Code. Similarly, parents’ rights to challenge exclusion decisions are being removed.

Without crucial parent empowerment, the result is a two-tier system where some people get a better deal than others.

So in health and education, the producer interest – providers of hospitals and schools – is being promoted over the public interest –– and that is rarely a good thing.

I want to illustrate these dangers through the way in which the Government is setting up its flagship free school programme.

This was sold to the public as parent-promoted schools but the truth is that less than half of the first schools are actually set up by parents. The truth is that the programme empowers providers, not the vast majority of parents.

The recent tightening up of the application process – which I welcome – has led to even Toby Young saying it is now “virtually impossible for groups of parents and teachers to set up free schools.”

I will come on in a moment to set out five reasons why I believe that – overall – the free school policy could have a detrimental effect on aspiration and achievement in our school system.

While I have real concerns about the national programme, it does not follow that Labour will be opposed to every free school.

We recognise that they are being set up by people with a genuine desire to improve education who are working within the options available to them.

As I said to the ASCL conference earlier this year, I have always been clear that free schools must be judged by local areas on the merits of each proposal.

Some proposals, like Peter Hyman's, are comprehensive, committed to fair admissions, and have the full backing of their local area.

I would prefer that all free schools choose to follow an open admissions policy, work in partnership with other local schools, focus on the most deprived children and employ qualified teachers.

But the public has no guarantee that they will operate in this way, and where the provider has all the power instead of the parents, the risk is a system where unfairness goes unchallenged.

I will judge every education policy on two clear tests – does it help every school to be a good school and every child to be the best they can be. That is why I say that by pursuing the free schools programme in the way that they are, the government has a plan for some schools and some children but not all schools and all children.

So I have been critical of the Tory-led Government’s free school programme, and I will continue to be so. As Peter Hyman has said, there are several issues to do with “governance, accountability and funding that need to be sorted out”.

Let me set out 5 reasons why people who want to see the highest levels of aspiration and achievement in every school and for every child should be concerned by this programme.

First – it’s a programme for the few not the many.

The free schools programme currently stands to affect just over one in every thousand schools. In the first year it’s likely that no more than 3,000 children will attend a free school. With almost 100 officials working on the free schools group at the Department for Education, that's 30 children who might benefit for every civil servant working on the policy. Not a great return on investment.

My point is this - the free schools programme is not going to transform educational standards in our schools. That's why it depresses me when I see the time, energy and PR being poured into it. Michael Gove should be concerned about every school, not just free schools.

The truth is that the Secretary of State secured an appalling capital settlement, and does not have enough funding available to back free schools without harming other schools. He cancelled 700 school building projects, and has left existing schools with an 80% cut to their maintenance budgets. Funding allocations appear to be driven by ideology rather than need.

And this brings me on to my second point – the few that benefit from the free schools programme are not in the areas of greatest need.

Michael Gove claimed that the free schools programme would improve education in the most disadvantaged areas. But just 2 of the 26 approved schools are in the 10 most deprived communities.

So while spending on schools overall is falling, funding is being diverted from areas of educational disadvantage to wealthier areas.

This brings me to a big difference between Labour’s approach and the current approach – we targeted deprived areas where standards were lowest.  

Take our academy programme - a fresh start for struggling schools in our poorest areas, with incredible results.

80% of our academies were in the most deprived half of the country, just 40% of Michael Gove's are.
There is another big difference between our academies and this Government’s academies which I want to touch on. Our academies were genuinely about autonomy and the freedom to innovate.

Michael Gove has said he will give all schools academy freedoms but he has severely undermined this by introducing the highly prescriptive English Baccalaureate.

This follows a pattern with this Secretary of State – he wants to tell teachers what reading techniques to use, children what books they should read, and young people what subjects they should study.

He urgently needs to decide whether he truly believes in autonomy or he will be in serious danger of collapsing under the weight of his own contradictions.

When you give schools freedom they offer subjects kids thrive in. We saw this in the Academies created under Labour, and they achieved fantastic results.

They do it by concentrating hard on the basics – with extra support in English and maths – and providing an engaging and balanced curriculum beyond this, often by rethinking the vocational education they offer.
Michael Gove rightly lauds Labour’s academies, but he has misunderstood them. Our academies have grappled with the real world challenge of preparing young people for modern life.  Michael Gove simply looks backwards – by valuing Latin over ICT in his English Baccalaureate he shows just how out of touch he really is.

Not surprisingly, the Academies he rightly praises don’t fare as well as other schools under the English Bac. Just 5% of kids in Academies got the English Bac, compared to 14% in other schools. And in a third of Academies not a single student achieved the English Bac, compared to less than one in 10 other schools.
One more point about this Government’s academy programme. Michael Gove frequently claims to have created as many academies in 12 months as Labour created in 12 years. This claim is as flimsy as the evidence he uses to back up most of his policy decisions.

Our academies were focused on truly challenging inner-city areas where they would make the most difference to standards. In many cases they were entirely new establishments, with new buildings and new leadership – a complete transformation. This takes time.

In contrast, Michael Gove’s academies are simply existing excellent schools, with a new funding mechanism. That doesn’t take long, and it’s not clear what rationale there is for expecting that it will raise standards.
This is a fundamental flaw in Michael Gove's approach to reform - he equates new structures with higher standards, but there is no automatic link between the two.

This takes me back to the free schools programme, and the third issue – it is a gamble with standards.
Michael Gove has provided no rationale to suggest that standards of teaching and learning will be higher in free schools.

International evidence is not compelling. Similar reforms in Sweden saw standards fall, and social segregation increase. The Director General of the Swedish Education Agency said in March last year, "we have had increasing segregation and decreasing results.” In America, research has shown that charter schools have few discernable advantages over public schools, and many perform worse. 

Planning guidelines published by the Government will allow Free Schools to be opened in completely unsuitable buildings. There are real questions about whether these schools will be able to offer a broad and balanced curriculum for their pupils, particularly if there is no suitable outdoor space.

Michael Gove has also confirmed that teachers working in Free Schools won’t need to have any qualifications, undermining his claim to be raising the status of teaching and exposing children to the risk of poor teaching and a resulting fall in standards.

Fourth reason – there are doubts over whether it is value for money.

As I have said, any reforms that give new freedoms to providers must be
 matched by a corresponding empowerment of the public, and a greater ability for users of services to hold providers to account.

But it is impossible to hold the Government to account on the free schools programme and to judge it fairly because the Government will not tell us how much money they are spending on it.

According to the BBC, at least 15 groups behind the proposals say they have been promised money, but Michael Gove will not tell us how much of the education budget is allocated for free schools in this spending review period.

The programme appears shrouded in secrecy.

I have serious concerns that money is being diverted from the schools budget, and in particular the capital budget, and given to free school providers. In the current economic climate and with mainstream schools facing harsh cuts, more transparency in this process is essential.  And it is right to ask whether this is the best use of resources.

No evidence has been provided that establishing new schools with little local consultation or coordination will be the most successful or cost-effective way of raising standards and delivering extra places where these are needed.

Fifth and final point – there are concerns that the programme could increase social segregation.
At a time when the Prime Minister is calling for a stronger sense of local identify to promote social cohesion there is a risk that the free schools programme is taking us in the opposite direction.

Schools should be at the heart of their local communities. But Free Schools are approved by the Secretary of State, with no requirement for groups setting them up to consult widely with the local population.
Michael Gove has removed communities’ rights to decide what kind of school they have, and he has made strategic, community-wide planning for children and young people more difficult.

So these are five reasons why I am worried about Michael Gove’s free school programme.

We are not against people who are trying to set up their own schools. And in the future, if a school was up and running successfully and making a positive input to the local community, a Labour Government would not close it simply because it was a Free School. Of course not.

But what matters in deciding about any new parent-promoted schools is the contribution a new school makes to improving standards for all children.

That’s why local areas should judge whether each school plans to operate in the wider interests of all children in the area, not just those that attend the school.

My test will be clear – we should look not just look at the results in the individual school but at the effect on results in the wider family of schools.

This is part of what is informing my pragmatic approach to refreshing Labour’s education policy. Unlike this Government, which has fallen headlong into the trap of equating structural change in schools with higher standards, I am not going to obsess with structures.

I want to develop a genuine alternative to the Government, that will be forward looking, thinking about what young people need to get on in the world today. How they can all master the basics, how they can develop the skills that employers want, how they can be supported along a path that lets them reach their full potential. As part of that, I want to do far more to meet the needs and aspirations of young people who don’t go to University.

We didn’t get everything right in Government. We didn’t always get the balance right between top-down direction and school autonomy. And in my view, at times we allowed the London context to exert an undue influence on national policy.

But overall, we did raise standards and aspirations, particularly in our former industrial communities.
When I think about the changes to University fees and the scrapping of EMA I can almost hear aspirations falling in constituencies like mine.

Labour will address these issues and set out a vision for a school system that supports high ambitions for every child and every school.