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Burnham For Mayor

Friday, 10 June 2011

In education, Gove is not the heir to Blair; Government reforms will create a two-tier system, which helps the top 30 per cent

Michael Gove has spent much of his first year in office cultivating a public image as the torchbearer for new Labour's education reforms. This is clever politics - flattery designed to wrong-foot opposition to reforms that are proceeding at breakneck pace without pilot studies, supporting evidence or proper consultation. So far, his strategy is working.
But the Education Secretary's pose is a fraudulent one. While there are similarities, there is a fundamental difference between this Government's approach to public service reform and Labour's: Mr Gove's plans take power away from parents and communities and represent a risk to standards and fairness.
More autonomy for schools is a good thing: the OECD identifies it as a common factor in the world's best education systems. But more power for schools depends crucially on a matching increase in the power of parents. So Labour gave people individual guarantees, such as the right to one-to-one catch-up tuition. Through local authorities, we also ensured fair access and stability.
The Education Bill, about to enter the Lords, does the opposite. It gives more power to schools while stripping it from parents. It severely weakens the fairness of the school admissions system and the schools adjudicator's power to act on parents' complaints. The rewritten admissions code talks of schools choosing deprived pupils, not the other way round. Selective schools have a green light to expand.
These could mean that by 2015 we have an all-academy world: 20,000 schools each with its own admissions policy, all judged on the prescriptive English baccalaureate that is geared towards the top 30 per cent of children.
Schools will have a clear incentive to admit the most able students. And with a weakened adjudicator, and greater competition between schools, backdoor selection becomes much more likely. Such a world will be a dangerous place for less academic children or those with special educational needs.
Mr Gove says the laws of the market will provide the solution: good schools will expand, poor schools contract or close. There is a flaw in this thinking: children who can't afford to travel might be stuck in schools with diminished prospects for improvement.
Mr Gove has no plan for these schools. By contrast, they were the focus of Labour's academy programme, which gave struggling schools a new start and more freedom to innovate.
As Tony Blair said yesterday, he was "always determined that [Labour's] reforms should help the poorest, the most disadvantaged. That's why we focused the academy programme on the poorest areas." Now money is being directed first to the best-performing schools, neglecting those with the biggest problems.
Under Labour, academies were given real freedoms, which they used to rethink vocational education and create a more modern, engaging curriculum. This contrasts with the backward-looking English baccalaureate, which prizes Latin above engineering and lacks relevance for many children and parents. It is a warning sign: it points to the emergence of a two-tier school system, with the "bac" as the engine for this polarisation.
There should no surprise about this. It happened in Sweden, which, as the Conservatives said in 2007, "provides the closest model for what we wish to do". Mr Gove does not talk much about Sweden now, probably because the director-general of the Swedish education agency has admitted that the free school reforms have failed. Per Thulberg told the TES: "We have had increasing segregation and decreasing results, so we can't say that increasing competition between schools has led to better results."
So what does improve standards? PISA, the Programme for International Student Assessment, is clear: the world's best school systems are comprehensive and collaborative in character, promoting school and curriculum autonomy within a coherent framework.
Labour will be true to that vision.
Our pragmatic approach means we won't operate blanket opposition at local level to free schools: each is different and it is perfectly possible for them to embody the comprehensive ideal. We support autonomy within a system that supports standards and ensures that no child gets left behind.
The lesson from Sweden couldn't be clearer: England is in danger of sleepwalking towards a more selective and socially segregated school system. Labour must raise the alarm, confident that Mr Gove's ideological approach is no continuation of ours.