By Tom Unterrainer, Assistant Secretary Nottingham NUT (personal capacity)
The publication of an Education White Paper last year commenced months of wrangling, negotiations and campaigning that has gone to the ideological heart of the Labour Party.
MPs and party members lined up with education unions to denounce proposals to unleash rampant market-driven measures upon schools. Up and down the country local associations of the National Union of Teachers held protest meetings, Constituency Labour Parties debated the issue and internal groupings like “Compass” issued pamphlets denouncing the plans.
With good reason some in the NUT have taken this as signalling a deep crisis for the Blair government – a crisis that could result in defeat for the White Paper, which has now become an Education Bill. It remains unclear what the outcome of any vote on the Bill will be, but the collective weight of would-be parliamentary rebels and the meagre efforts from the leadership of the NUT has so far done little to ameliorate the substance of the proposals.
Since 1997 Blair and a succession of education ministers have pursued and extended a policy of school diversification introduced by the Tories in the early 90s. The test-beds for this process were the unpopular Grant Maintained (GM) schools and City Technology Colleges (CTCs). GM schools were an attempt to assess the viability of allowing schools independence from local government control. Individual heads and governing bodies were encouraged to hive themselves off from the “interference” of LEAs and make themselves directly responsible to central government.
GM schools — perhaps unsurprisingly — proved an unappealing prospect for most heads. CTCs were a different kettle of fish. These were brand-new, purpose-built schools that actively sought private sponsorship, employed teachers and adjusted the curriculum on an independent basis, selected a spectrum of abilities (albeit significantly skewed to the top end) and received appreciably more funding than your average secondary school.
The former steel producing town of Corby in Northamptonshire clearly illustrates the claimed “benefits” of this type of school. When steel production stopped in the early 1980s Corby was left an empty shell with high unemployment, poor housing and health and extremely low educational achievement. The solution to the last of these problems was to open a CTC. The result? Close to 100% A*-C at GCSE for those lucky enough to be selected for the new school – but a continued downward spiral for the rest.
At the time Labour came out fighting against the CTCs, but New Labour have pushed through these sorts of “reforms” for the past eight years. The Education Bill and City Academy scheme should be seen as the logical conclusion of this Tory policy.
Comprehensive education — like the NHS — is one of the last remaining symbols of Labour’s reforming past. Some Labour members who weathered the removal of Clause Four, the continuation of Tory social policy and a string of unpopular military escapades have baulked at the prospect of this legacy being destroyed. Veteran Blairites like Fiona Miller have transformed themselves into vehement class-warriors at the prospect of the abolishment of comprehensive schools.
In A Comprehensive Future – Quality and Equality for all our Children (co-authored with the more consistent Melissa Benn) we hear the following assessment of our schools: “One of the biggest problems facing British schools is the gap between rich and poor”. That’s a situation Blair has failed to do anything about since coming to office — but what about his future plans? “If the government continues in the direction it is currently heading, we risk creating a multipartite system, a pyramid of provision, with high-achieving state schools at the top, largely drawing from better off families, down to a hard core of low achieving schools and colleges, largely in the inner cities, serving the poorer children”. Even those who otherwise support the Blair agenda can see what awaits us and to their credit they’ve done a lot of work to make this a national issue.
The White Paper contained proposals on issues from school meals to a new inspection regime. Of all the proposals, selection and the idea of “Trust Schools” — an amalgam of GM, CTCs and Faith School “values” — have caused most concern. The main thrust of Labour Party opposition has been focused on selection. This particular cat was let out of the bag some years ago but proposals in the White Paper put down in ink complete school-based control.
To many this signalled a concrete return to a Grammar/Secondary Modern system and spurred them into active opposition. The main weakness of the internal party opposition — and importantly any likely rebellion — has been this focus on selection because by expunging these proposals from the Education Bill, Blair has potentially defused a large element of the rebel block. The main thrust of the Bill — marketisation through the creation of Trusts — remains intact.
In spite of the forced concession over selection, the Education Bill remains a major threat to the idea of inclusive, community comprehensive education. Any wheeler-dealer, religious fanatic or “educationalist” on a mission can set up a charitable body, form a “Trust” and take over a school. The motivation to do so is greater now than in the past because elements of the market — in the form of Academies and other specialist schools — are already in place to act as a lever for other schools.
To effectively oppose the Education Bill we must engage forces like those around “Compass”, MPs who opposed the White Paper and the wider labour movement in a grass-roots led campaign which involves teachers, parents and students against the Bill. Specifically we should campaign for individual teachers, Governors, trade unionists and Labour Councils to sign up to a pledge of non-compliance with the proposals in the Bill — to pledge that under no circumstances will they take part in the privatisation of our schools.