Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Gordon brings some coherence to the Government's schools policy

Today's education speech by the Prime Minister was talked up as part of the fightback against his Bank Holiday critics. The Liberal Democrats predictably sneered at it in advance (bizarrely imagining that their own feeble education policy offers a credible alternative). But whatever its genesis, that was a good speech on education by Gordon Brown that offered a sense of where the government is going on the issue that has been sadly lacking in too much of what has emerged from the 'children's, schools and families' department in recent months.

It was particularly good because it was about education and schools in particular. And once it moved from the obligatory global justifications, it got down to brass tacks in a credible way. By dividing itself into themes related to leadership, teaching and the role of parents, it provide a valuable vehicle for a good number of worthwhile announcements (and justifiable reannouncements). It was, as a result, far chunkier than the advance billing.

There is to be much stronger action on failing primary schools (though the Prime Minister needlessly stops at federations for their governance). Chains of schools - already developing through academies - are to be given greater encouragement. Online reporting by schools to parents of children's progress will become the norm from 2010 in secondaries and 2012 in primaries. The importance of external primary tests was reaffirmed, along with plans for a new Report Card. Local authorities will be expected to become more the commissioners envisaged by Tony Blair in his 2005 White Paper than the managers of schools and to be responsive to parents both where they want to set up new schools and where they want new provision.

There is a much greater coherence in this menu than has been evident not only in government speeches on education of late but than there is in the Opposition's still very sketchy proposals for free schools. But there are still areas where the Government could and should go further when it finally publishes its White Paper on schools next month.

First, the academies programme and academy freedoms should be available to federations of primary schools including weaker ones (this is not actually what the Tories are proposing, and would provide a constructive contrast to their plans).

Second, although most parents may not want to set up their own schools, the Government should make sure the powers in the 2006 legislation can be used by those who do and significant parent promoters not only get local authority support to develop their plans, but they are linked to others who might be willing to take up their ideas. The extra costs need only arise with the capital proposals that are the Achilles heel of the Tory plans.

Third, if local authorities are to be expected to act in parents' interests, there must be someone with the statutory authority to force them to do so. This should be an explicit responsibility of the School Adjudicator, who already has a number of similar roles.

In the current climate, it may be that Brown's measures are treated as trivial or repetitive. And the Prime Minister could have done a little more to remind people how much has already been achieved, not least with academies. But by giving coherence to an approach to education that has recently felt haphazard, the PM has made a valiant attempt to recover the Labour initiative in this subject.

I've also written on the speech for the Progress website.

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