By Pat Murphy, Leeds NUT
The Government is facing its biggest and most powerful revolt yet over the Education White Paper “Higher Standards, Better Schools For All”. Around 100 Labour MPs have signed up to an alternative White Paper which dispenses with key sections of the original.
Many of the rebels are anything but “the usual suspects”. Ex-Blairite Education Secretary Estelle Morris and former Labour leader Neil Kinnock spoke to a packed Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting which was also attended by Blair’s one-time political adviser Alistair Campbell. John Prescott has made his opposition known in his own mealy-mouthed way, and even David Blunkett, another former Education Secretary, appears to be suggesting that Blair will need to compromise to get his Education Bill through.
All of this has created major strategic and tactical problems for New Labour. When the content of the White Paper was announced last October Blair declared that every time he had embarked on the “modernisation” of public services “I wished that I had gone further”, portraying himself as the great visionary held back by doubters and nay-sayers on all sides. He was one of the very few that could see the sickness at the heart of Britain’s key services and prescribe the radical remedies required. He, however, was condemned to lead a party too wedded to the past and self-interest, too sceptical and superstitious to accept his cures.
Having painted himself in those colours it will be difficult for him to retreat on any of the key issues. And yet it is impossible to see how he can successfully get through an Education Bill without substantial and significant retreat. Especially when the new media-friendly Tory leader David Cameron is urging him to stick rigidly to his guns and offering to support him in getting his Bill through Parliament, but only if he does not dilute the content.
Why the depth and scale of opposition? Because the Education White Paper is truly dreadful. As a package this is the most significant attack on the education of working class children since the 1944 Education Act. When he announced the White Paper on 26 October, in the words Solidarity used last year (3/83 3 November 2005), “Tony Blair finally and decisively came out as a Tory”. The proposals amount to the dismantling of the state schooling system in favour of a market free-for-all. Labour MP Jon Trickett wrote a column in the New Statesman on 28 November which identified striking similarities, line by line, between the White Paper and the Conservative manifesto for the 2005 election.
“The Tory manifesto says ‘Choice drives up standards in every field of endeavour’; while in the White Paper we find the statement slightly rephrased: ‘Parent choice can be a powerful driver of improved standards’.”. The Labour Manifesto, as Trickett pointed out, actually criticised the Tories proposals on the grounds that “they would allow a free-for-all in school admissions..an education system designed to look after the few but fail the many”.
The proposal which has most annoyed Labour dissidents is that each individual school will control its own admissions policy. They rightly see that this will lead not to pupils choosing schools but to schools choosing pupils, mechanism by which selection will be introduced on a huge scale. Oversubscribed (popular) schools will find ways of deciding who to admit and there is every incentive within the current system for them to ensure that they get the brightest, the most likely to gain high GCSE and A-level grades and keep the school high in the Government’s league tables. Those most poorly served by the current school system would be even more marginalised.
The White Paper proposes the end of “community schools”, that is the vast majority of schools, which are currently run by Local Authorities. All new schools will be trust schools, described as “self-governing independent state schools” set up and run by a trust with sponsors from private businesses, faith groups, charities or voluntary organisations. All existing schools will also be “encouraged” to become self-governing schools. The model here is the Academies programme, which sees private or religious sponsors take over and run schools, setting their own admissions policy, owning the assets and deciding their own pay and conditions for staff outside national and local agreements with trade unions. Recently Academies have been slammed, by amongst others the Audit Commission, as socially divisive, costly and ineffective in “raising standards”.
The role of local authorities in running schools is to be virtually abolished. They are to become “commissioners rather than providers of education services”. How this fits with the rest of the national agenda in local government, which is to have all children’s services working together as part of the Children’s Act, no-one can explain.
The dissidents however do not have a clear alternative. Most of the proposed changes build on “reforms” introduced by people like Estelle Morris and David Blunkett. These in turn were based on wholesale acceptance of the Tory reforms of the early 1990s which separated schools from local authorities, allowed them to control their own budgets and compete with each other for pupils and money through the absurd testing and league tables regime.
The erosion of local democracy and accountability and the launch of Academies was all promoted without objection by some of the prominent dissidents. If they have now broken from that past, then that’s all to the good. But which bits do they now reject and in favour of what?
There is a strong chance that the key rebels will be satisfied with one central change — that local authorities continue to control admissions, probably through a statutory code of admissions to prevent selection. However the whole direction of the White Paper needs challenging, and replacing with a genuine labour movement alternative. This would mean:
• abolishing national tests and league tables
• funding schools on the basis of needs and activities rather than pupil numbers
• radically reduced class sizes across all age ranges
• good well-resourced schools in every locality
• local democratic control and accountability. Communities cannot plan and ensure adequate provision if individual schools are independent from local elected bodies.
• The abolition of the Academies programme and their reintegration into local education communities
• The rejection of the concept of self-governing trust schools
Local labour movement organisations need to rouse themselves to respond to the White Paper and campaign for a genuine comprehensive future for children. Trade union activists need to unite with local parents and community activists to make people aware of what lies ahead, how we can stop it and what the alternatives are. This activity needs to link up with a national campaign for comprehensive state education. The National Union of Teachers along with other groups, has organised a conference on 25 March in London under the title “A Good Local School For Every Child”. If this is to be the launch of a major national campaign rather than a talking shop, it must hear from people involved in active, vibrant campaigns.
The left in the NUT are organising meetings in local branches around the country and have produced thousands of “Bin the White Paper” postcards to flood the offices of MPs. These can be used for street stalls and city centre campaigning.
The stakes are very high on this issue. The divide at the top of the Labour Party is deep. Without a confident and positive head of steam from below, however, Blair’s plan for a market free-for-all could be merely diluted rather than defeated. That would be a wasted opportunity to put socialist education back on the agenda.