A New Deal for Education?
With a general election just around the corner, Attain’s Editor looks at the education policies proposed by the Conservatives – what could we expect from a Conservative government and how would it affect your child?
There are few things in politics which you can know with any certainty. One thing for definite is that the next general election must be held on or before Thursday 3rd June. With local elections already in the diary for the 6th May, is this the date when Gordon Brown will go to the polls?
The biggest challenge of any sitting government, especially one which has been in office for almost 13 years, is to look fresh and innovative. In the early years of the Blair government, Ministers would blame problems affecting their department on the previous Tory administration. Labour can no longer take that position and, in the case of education, need to defend significant failures despite millions and millions of pounds of investment. But what alternative do the Conservatives offer? In many ways, the overall strategy is one of reaction rather than action – wait for the Government to make a mistake and then criticise accordingly. It works, and the opinion polls reflect it, but stop the proverbial man in the street and ask him what changes a Conservative government would make to education and the puzzled look rather gives away the answer.
Partly the problem for education is that Labour’s policy, when Lord Adonis was Schools’ Minister, was a clear Conservative position. The Academies programme – an extension of the previous Tory-developed ‘City Technology Colleges’ scheme – was precisely the sort of policy they would have wished to adopt. In recent years, it has been diluted as Local Education Authorities were allowed to become sponsors of Academies and thus reduce the school’s ability to be independent. One clear difference in strategy to emerge as a result is a Conservative plan to accelerate the Academies programme: more schools, greater independence and, more controversially, the ability for parents to set up their own schools. This policy, if it works, could transform the educational landscape of the UK; it could also be a huge waste of tax-payers’ money.
To find out more about this policy, and the changes the Conservatives would offer, Attain talked to Nick Gibb MP, Shadow Minister for Schools. One of the biggest complaints from prep schools is their objection to the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) – a set of requirements introduced in 2008 which forces providers of care for children under five years to follow compulsory educational targets. Although unable to promise to scrap the legislation, Nick Gibb does recognise the huge burden of paperwork which has invaded teaching and pledged to ‘slash the bureaucracy that’s being piled onto both sectors’. Parents can also take some comfort that the Conservatives are ‘very pro the independent sector; we don’t have an ideological hostility to it which you see from this government’ and that their ‘objective’ is ‘to deliver a much less prescriptive approach’ when it comes to the Charity Commission’s interpretation of the 2006 Charities Act.
Nick Gibb MP, Shadow Minister for Schools
One of the biggest issues affecting independent prep schools is EYFS. Would you scrap EYFS? ‘We’re looking at it. We do think it’s bureaucratic and over-prescriptive and so we are just looking at it right now to see how pervasive it should be. But certainly the 117 tick boxes of the EYFS is not a good use of nursery school teachers’ time. They ought to be talking to the children, teaching the children and helping the children rather than photographing children tying their shoe laces and putting them into scrap books as evidence, which seems to be the thing they spend a lot of time on.’
The thing that is most upsetting to the independent sector is the fact they can’t opt out of this. Would you therefore be willing to say that a school that doesn’t take the funding shouldn’t actually have to dance to the tune? ‘Well let’s just watch this space. It is something that we’re looking at right now, the whole EYFS issue – which years it applies to, which sectors it applies to, and what’s in it and how prescriptive is it – we’re looking at it.’
But this boils down to an issue of independence. Surely this is a policy which should have been decided by now? ‘Well I’d love to make policy right now but we have a procedure for it, but I understand the arguments that you are making. But the independent sector is still subject to laws, all kinds of laws about safeguarding, all sorts of different inspectorates, so being independent doesn’t put you on a different planet, totally divorced from the state. But I do understand the arguments you are making about the EYFS – why does that apply and not the National Curriculum? – I understand the point.’
Independent schools are increasingly drowning under the amount of bureaucracy and paperwork. Can you give them at least some reassurance that one of the things you will do – if you do take office – will be to cut down on the amount of paperwork? ‘You can absolutely walk away with that guarantee. We are determined to slash the bureaucracy that’s being piled onto both sectors – and it’s even worse in the state sector, to be frank – so we are going to get rid of a lot of that bureaucracy because it stifles creativity. It takes up huge amounts of professionals’ time that should be spent in the classroom, not filling in forms. It is crippling for teachers and it just drives them out of the profession. So you can be assured of that, and you can also be assured that we understand fully the complaints and concerns the independent sector has about the Early Years Foundation Stage.’
Assuming you were to win next election, what would be the first thing that you would want to do? ‘Well, the two key areas, we want to make it much easier for new schools to be established within the state sector. So we will be encouraging Livery companies, philanthropic groups like ARK [Absolute Return for Kids], the Mercers’, parent groups, teacher cooperatives, all people with experience in education, and others, to come in and set up new schools. And we’ll be changing the law to make it easier in terms of the bureaucracy – bureaucracy in terms of setting one up, relaxing the planning rules, changing building regulations – to make it easier for new groups to set up new schools, and that will be a key priority in the first weeks of a Conservative government if we’re elected. We also want to have a real focus on reading, to make sure that we don’t have the situation in 10 years’ time that we have now, where a quarter of children are leaving primary school still struggling with reading, and 40% leave state primary schools still struggling with the basics – reading, writing and maths. It’s just unacceptable. And those are the children who, as a consequence, can’t really cope in secondary school and don’t really benefit from secondary education. We’ve got to get that right, so that’s absolutely a key priority for a Conservative government. And then thirdly, behaviour – a real focus on improving standards of behaviour particularly in secondary schools. Unless you have good behaviour in schools, a good ethos in schools, you can’t really get any of the educational achievements that you need.’
You say that you want to enable parents to be able to set up new schools. How would that work? ‘Well, there is an organisation called the New Schools Network that will advise and help parents to work out how to get the capital, how to deal with the Department. But in essence, we will change the law to make it easier to establish a new school. One of the things that prohibits a group, whether it’s parents or others, from setting up a school is the surplus places rule. So an area like Slough, or Stoke-on-Trent, or Birmingham or wherever, if it has surplus places beyond a certain figure, 10%, they will at the moment resist any new school coming in, because they’ve got to fill these other places first. But we’re saying that’s irrelevant. If a group wants to come in and set up a school – and they think they can attract parents and pupils then they can go ahead and do so – and that really is a big change.’
So a group of like-minded parents would get together and they would put together a proposal for starting this school, and then they would receive full state funding to set up this school? ‘On a per pupil basis.’
On a per pupil basis. So what about the actual building and the actual capital costs of setting up the school. ‘Well we said a couple of years ago, in a Green Paper – ‘Raising the Bar: Closing the Gap’ – we would allocate 15% of the unallocated Building Schools for the Future budget for capital spend. But we’re also looking for new providers to be more imaginative as well, so we can spread the capital as far as possible. So we’re also looking, as well as the possibility of new buildings, we also want them to perhaps look at renting a building, or taking an existing commercial office space building, and turning it into a school. When Michael Gove and I went to Sweden, we saw some very imaginative approaches to where the schools will be located and they were fantastic schools.’
But in essence you would allocate a sum of money per pupil? ‘Yes, and it would be the full amount, without the top slicing going to the Local Authority. They would get the top slice too.’
Ok, you don’t have a figure yet in mind on a per pupil basis? ‘No, we don’t have a figure yet. But the figure commentators talk about is around £5000 per head. Because if you look at the average figure, you’ve got around £3500 going to Leicestershire schools and £6500 going to Tower Hamlets schools. People talk about this, but we don’t have a precise figure yet.’
Ok, but somewhere in the region of £5000. ‘Yes.’
And in terms of how this school is actually going to be run effectively, you’ve got this group of parents, but how can you ensure proper staffing, proper governance and a proper curriculum? ‘Well, any school that’s established under this system will have to be approved by the Secretary of State. So if you...
But this is untried and untested. This is a group of well-meaning but in some case naïve parents that are coming together, and you’re going to give them a whole lot of money? ‘Well, they will have to present a business plan and in that plan will be details of their educational expertise, and that will be assessed very carefully by the Secretary of State before it’s given approval. And it’s very likely that some of these parent groups will want to attach themselves to an Academy chain, for example, or they may want to work these things through themselves, if they have the expertise. But if the plan doesn’t indicate they have the expertise to run a high quality educational establishment, it won’t be approved by the Secretary of State.’
Do you see this therefore as being an area in which there could be some overlap with the independent sector? ‘Very much, particularly the Foundations behind the great public schools. We hope very much (and some already have done) that they will set up Academies, and we very much hope they’ll want to set up more.’
Ok, but the Academies, I mean, that’s a slightly different arrangement to a group of parents coming together. ‘Not really, because it’ll be the same legislation.’
But an Academy sponsor is normally somebody who, for want of a better word shall we say, is ‘professional’. It’s a professional group of some description, that has some past experience of running a school. ‘They can be, but if you take Mossbourne School [Hackney Downs] as an example, the sponsor there was a businessman – and he established an Academy. He recruited Michael Wilshaw to set it up, and it’s fantastic. So you don’t have to be the Mercers’, the ULT or ARK even, to set up a very successful school, and it’s the same model – just it’s with a group of parents and you won’t have to find £2 million.’
But isn’t there a problem, or potential problem, though if a group of parents are looking to set up a school which is just a stone’s throw away from an independent school. Why not utilise that existing provider? There are plenty of examples of IAPS schools which charge pretty near to £5000 per pupil. ‘Because we have said that our policy is not about helping people escape from the state sector, it’s about improving the state sector.’
That’s not what I’m suggesting. But if you’re happy to spend £5000 on a pupil who is being educated in a brand new school with huge capital expenditure to set that up…
‘Maybe, not always. It might be an existing school that’s scheduled for closure that parents have said they want to run.’
Ok, but there’s still going to be necessary expenditure, time and effort going into that. If there was an independent prep school nearby that had spare capacity and they were actually able to offer places for the same amount or even less, surely it makes economic sense to take advantage of it? ‘No, because the independent sector is only 7% of the whole capacity, and we’re talking about improving schools for 93%. There’s simply not the capacity in the independent sector, with the best will in the world.’
The problem that some people would see with this is that whilst the Academy programme has been very good, and it’s turned around some failing schools, in some cases it has definitely not worked. How are you going to ensure that you limit the possibility of failure? ‘Well overall they have improved standards by twice the rate of schools that are not Academies. So taking the academies movement as a whole, it has been very successful.’
But there have been notable failures. ‘Absolutely, and we will very tough on those Academies that are not delivering and that’s why there will be a very high level of scrutiny and oversight. If Ofsted reports show that a school is not succeeding, if the exam results show the school is not succeeding, then we will bring in the sponsor and say ‘look, what’s going on’ and if they’re not improving then we will change the sponsor. It’s as simple as that. We will not tolerate continued failure.’
And you wouldn’t have any involvement with the LEAs? The bit I’m not clear on really is the definition of what ‘independent’ really is? ‘It is independent of local authorities and national government. So they’ll be exempt from the National Curriculum and they’ll be able to run their own school. The ‘quid pro quo’ for that is very strict accountability; so more accountability but less interference. They will essentially be independent schools, like any independent school at the moment, but without the fees.’
And if there was an independent prep school that wanted to get involved and help with setting up another school, you would encourage that? ‘Very much so. I’ve got one in my own constituency.’
And you would see that as being a very strong step in terms of their Charity Commission obligations. ‘I’m very sympathetic to that viewpoint but the detail of this is a matter for careful drafting by the Charity Commission. But you know our general viewpoint about these things. We’re very pro the independent sector; we don’t have an ideo-logical hostility to it which you see from this government.’
So when this policy gets rolled out, you don’t envisage there being any controversy in the press in relation to the way that these ‘independent’ schools are going to work versus the existing independent sector? ‘No, we’re not here to try and fix or sort out the independent sector. They are doing a fantastic job. And more power to your elbow, would be our view. The Academy programme is about trying to fix the state sector, so that’s the thrust of our policy. It’s not meant to have any effect on your schools. It’s just meant to try to address the problems that we see in the state sector.’
Would a future Conservative government reappraise the line taken by the Charity Commission? ‘Well we’ve been very critical of the very prescriptive interpretation of the law. We think it’s wrong to say 5% of your fee income should go on bursaries, because those schools that are doing fantastic work in the community, and with other schools, may stop doing that in order just to fulfil this very precise view in the guidance. I think that’s the wrong approach. We need to be much more flexible and allow independent schools to fulfil this obligation to the community in the way that suits them best, and it would be a pity to stop the community engagement that’s happening now. It would be a pity if all that comes to an end because of a very narrow interpretation and a very prescriptive interpretation of the rules.’
So just to be really clear on it then, you would look to ensure the Commission change their interpretation, as it just seems wrong. ‘It does, and we will look at this area and our intention – our objective – is to deliver a much less prescriptive approach. A much less prescriptive interpretation of the rules.’
So schools can take some comfort in that? ‘Yes.’
Do you want to make a prediction about whether Dame Suzi will still be in her job...?! ‘No prediction, no.’