Monday, 26 April 2010

The Campaign So Far...

So here we are, with only 10 days to go until polling day, we have reached some kind of hiatus in what has alternately been called the most boring and most exciting election in modern times.

Certainly no one would suggest that the first few lacklustre weeks of campaigning had set the world on fire. On the other hand, the impact of the leaders' debates are being framed, thanks to a frothing mania in the media, as a potentially seismic change in our political system. Regardless of the real, and as yet uncertain, impact of these debates they have served to kick the election campaign up a gear, and bring deserved scrutiny onto competing policies which present very different views of Britain’s future.

In these election times it can be hard to cut through the fog, on one side the apathy of the electorate and on the other the stratospheric levels of opinion and comment generated by the press; to boil the campaign down to real events – what has been said and what the parties have promised. This is particularly important to people involved in the sphere of education – which has been one of the real debating issues of the election so far.

So here, from a perspective of the education practitioner is a run down of the key talking points to date.

The Progressive Education Network seeks to promote measured debate around the next steps in education reform, and published our document ‘please no year zerowith the hope that education, and with it the opportunities of the nation’s school children would not become a political football during the campaign.

No one can argue that the education debate during the campaign has not been frantic. Before the campaign proper had even begun, it looked like our worst fears were being realised. In a unedifying piece of political point scoring the Labour and Conservative parties were spectacularly unable to reach a consensus regarding key elements of the Schools Bill which came before parliament in the ‘washing up’ phase, where any incomplete bills must be rushed through before the dissolution of parliament.

It is perfectly normal that when a bill is to be passed without the normal period of consultation, changes and concessions have to be made, and PEN accepts that this can be a fraught process when the two pugilists have such conflicting views as Ed Balls and Michael Gove.

It is entirely legitimate that an opposition party might see fit to block reforms which they do not support or feel are ineffective. However to unilaterally block some important and well researched policies without offering an alternative for the children they were designed smacks of the thoughtless politicking that members of the education community are tired of.

Subsequently the bill which was passed was missing many key elements.

Here are some of the reforms left on the shelf:

  • The Pupil and Parent Guarantees – which guarantee core rights and entitlements for pupils and parents, including catch-up lessons, 1-2-1 tuition and small group support for pupils needing extra support.
  • Home School Agreements – the Bill strengthens Home School Agreements, making them more personalised for each pupil, and new and stronger powers to enforce parents’ responsibilities in supporting the school in maintaining good behaviour including the possibility of a court-imposed parenting order.
  • Reform of the primary curriculum – the reforms to the primary curriculum, following Sir Jim Rose’s extensive expert review, provide greater flexibility for schools to tailor teaching to the needs and interests of their children while also focusing on the basics of literacy, numeracy and ICT.
  • Introduction of compulsory Personal Social Health and Economic (PSHE) education – the PSHE provisions ensure that all children receive at least one year of compulsory sex and relationship education (SRE) by making PSHE compulsory, and lowering the age at which parents can withdraw their children from PSHE from 19 to 15 years old. Legal advice to the Secretary of State was that increasing the age of the PSHE opt-out to 16 would have made the bill non-compliant with the ECHR.
  • The new Licence to Practise for teachers – this licence, accompanied by a contractual entitlement to continuing professional development, will establish the professional standing of the workforce and provide teachers with the status they deserve.
  • Registration and monitoring of home education – following Graham Badman’s independent report into home education, these provisions put in place a valuable tool for local authorities in their work to safeguard all children.
  • School Improvement Partners (SIPs) – the powers of SIPs will be updated so head teachers receive peer support, and challenge.
  • Data for the school report card – the new school report card gives fairer and more accurate accountability for schools and gives parents even more information about the schools their children attend.
  • Schools eligible for intervention and schools causing concern – the Bill strengthens local authority powers to intervene in schools causing concern, and more powers for the Secretary of State to intervene where improvement is not good enough.
  • Youth Offending Teams – the Bill gives powers for the Secretary of State to intervene where an inspection or other evidence reveals a significant failing in a Youth Offending Team (YOT) which may be putting young people or the wider community at risk.
  • Parental satisfaction surveys – this duty on local authorities would require them proactively to seek parents’ views on the range and quality of secondary school places in their area and then act on their responses. (Source: Claire Tupling @

Although PEN did not support all the elements of the bill, we find it difficult to identify where any meaningful objection to 1-2-1 tuition for failing students can be found. The real shame and scandal of this messy breakdown in long term thinking will be that the students who are in education right now and could benefit from these reforms may well be beyond the reach of the system by the time effective substitutes can be developed.

It is just this kind of petty point scoring which degrades public faith in the work of our elected MP’s.

You can read more about the washing up of the education bill here.

All in all this eventful, if unwelcome, opening to the General Election, was followed apace by a heated debate around the key pillar of the Conservative vision for education in this country: the development of many more UK schools based on the Swedish ‘free school’ model.

The education of our children is, quite rightly, one of the most emotive topics addressed by politicians. As a consequence it draws intense and passionate debate from all sides, and the Conservative vision for schools is no exception.

At the core of the proposal lies the principal that groups who are freed from state control can utilise resources more effectively and deliver better outcomes for students. The idea is that social groups, be they charities, parents or teachers, should be allowed to set up a school wherever and run it with state funding, regardless of any existing excess of school places. The logic is that power is devolved to communities and failing schools in any area would be challenged by a ‘free school’ and be forced to improve or lose students and subsequently funding.

This policy, which is part of the Conservatives wider ‘Big Society’ concept, addresses real concerns among parents that there is a shortage of places in good local schools, or that the schools in their catchment area are of a poor standard. These legitimate issues, when combined with concern over the perceived ‘postcode lottery’ of school places acts to drive debate to a very combative and often unconstructive place. Certainly the Labour Party must accept its share of blame for allowing these concerns to go unanswered.

PEN empathises with and supports the position of parents such as Toby Young, who through his Daily Telegraph blog has become the standard bearer of the parent’s choice camp. We fully support those parents who are vocal and politically active enough to see that a school is failing their children and who take action to address this issue.

The desire of such parents to set up schools in their local area is to be commended to the highest degree. However we are seriously concerned at the fragmented and incomplete nature of these proposals at a national level. Under these proposals, what is to become of the children of parents who, for whatever reason, do not have the time or the inclination to develop their own local school? Will a new school in their area be left to a profit driven business, or will they simply be left to a uneven education system in which the majority of attention and resources are diverted to these free schools.

PEN is adamant that what we require is a holistic national framework to deal with the problems we have in some of our schools. Leaving decisions like which schools should be improved to the market is not an effective way to deal with our large and differentiated system. With over 20,000 schools in the UK, PEN does not agree with the Conservative Party that the few hundred head teachers who have expressed support for these proposals constitutes a ground swell of interest.

Indeed, what is of real concern is the thought that such plans might lead to a two tier state education system, with improvements in areas with a strong community, and a quick degradation in areas where the community lacks the capacity to set up a school.

The idea of new schools is one PEN can wholeheartedly support, but at the core of this proposal is the worrying reality that in the current climate of certain spending cuts, money will be diverted from existing school budgets and given to parents who want to start new schools, even if there isn’t a shortage of places locally.

PEN wants an education system which satisfies the needs of all the parents who feel that the system is failing their children; there is no excuse for parents being forced to send their children to a failing school, or a school far from where they live. We argue that we must work together to address these issues rather than fragmenting the system to allow those who can help themselves to steam ahead and leaving all those who cannot to flounder.

We were so concerned about the implications of these plans that we, in conjunction with 51 leading head teachers and education practitioners, wrote an open letter to The Guardian, you can read the full text here.

Unsurprisingly, PEN came under attack from various sides for the content of our letter. However, the future of our education system is at stake in these reforms, and we are confident that a real debate is needed around these issues. This debate is something we were able to catalyse with our letter; we only hope that more discussion can be had on this topic before May 6th.

It is our conviction that what is needed now is to deepen the partnership between schools, government and local communities, not to put it aside and replace it with a complete change in direction. Far from being anti-parent or anti choice we believe that the best way to ensure that choice is exercised fairly is to ensure that all pupils in our system are treated with the same respect.

We must not lose sight of the progress that has been made or the complex challenges faced by our education system as it continues to try and equip our young people for the challenges of tomorrow.

In the days following the letters publication there was considerable constructive debate around the Conservative proposals, you can read some of it here.

If the focus on ‘educational tourism’ had been the talking point of the campaign so far it was all set to change in 90 minutes on the 15th of April.

Cleggmania was born over night thanks to a strong performance from the Liberal Democrat leader and typical excess in the reporting of the event by the political media.

PEN welcomes the extra attention begins focused on the Lib Dems, for some of the scrutiny inevitably falls on their education policies. David Laws, the Lib Dem education spokesman is an articulate proponent of his parties policies, many of which PEN whole heartedly support. For example only the Lib Dems have pledged an increase in education spending of up to £2.5 billion as a corner stone of their education policy, to reduce class sizes, recruit more teachers and increase 1-2-1 tuition.

As Cleggmania ebbs and flows we will bring a more detailed analysis of the Lib Dem education policy later this week.

However this excitement was followed by an even more striking educational development. Despite emerging from outside the political sphere, this situation has the power to be one of the most divisive events of the new parliament.

Last week the NUT and the NAHT revealed that their national ballot had voted to boycott this years KS2 Sats. This is an event of huge significance which is very likely to be the first industrial dispute faced by any new government. In recent days the unions in question have reaffirmed their plan to support the boycott and the government has sought legal advice regarding how to stop them. All the three main political parties have towed the same nuanced line on this issue, saying that while they support the concerns of the teachers, it is not right for them to support a boycott so close to the tests for which children have worked so hard.

However, there are significant dividing lines between the parties, Ed Balls, is unequivocal in his support for tests, which he says have been crucial in driving up standards.The Conservative position is inconclusive as Michael Gove has suggested that he would replace the tests with a smaller literacy exam while at the same time saying he supports national testing. Only Nick Clegg, in a recent interview with the TES has said he would scrap the tests entirely.

Who ever wins the election will have to address this issue,one which goes to the very heart of the debate around standards and testing in our schools. You can read Pen’s assessment of the Sat’s debate here.

In conclusion, it seems that in the world of education policy, at the moment nothing is certain beyond the fact that we stand at a real cross roads for our education system. PEN hopes that we can achieve more clarity and understanding through reasoned debate between now and May 6th.

In the coming days this PEN blog will feature detailed analysis of the parties’ education pledges along with a run down of the events before the polls open on May the 6th.

Please do keep checking back for more information.

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