Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Power to the parents and pupils?

I'm enjoying the French sunshine this week, so readers will have been spared listening to me on Today or WATO (and for the benefit of BBC researchers, I'm still on holiday). But I thought I would share a few reflections on today's schools white paper.

And the next instalment of Gordon Brown's 'power to the people' package of reforms, looks like it will have some good things going for it. The idea of chains of schools forming with common curricula and shared resources is a good thing, that has been developing in Academies. (It is definitely less effective as with most such programmes if good schools are forced into them). The report cards may provide useful additional information, particularly where they include parental satisfaction surveys, provided they are not seen as more important than either Ofsted reports or published test scores. Plans to take the parents of unruly pupils to court are an extension of existing powers on truancy, which rightly set the primary responsibility for poor discipline where it belongs. But with responsibilities come rights: so the entitlements on one-to-one tuition are good; hopefully there will be more in the paper on extending parent powers when it comes to demanding a new school.

But there is a worry about the general direction of travel on accountability (which David Aaronovitch ably reflects in today's Times) - which is as important in raising standards as parental pressure or choice - which was heightened with the abandonment of the literacy and numeracy strategies last week. Don't get me wrong: the strategies were largely abandoned by Charles Clarke when he merged them into the all-singing, all-dancing Primary Strategy, and that's what was really scrapped. The point of the literacy and numeracy lessons was that there would be dedicated, distinctive lessons in the 3Rs each day in primary schools, because until then, they were often merged into other subjects. There is nothing wrong with reinforcing the teaching of English and Maths across the curriculum; quite the contrary. But the scrapping of the strategies must be reinforced by a clear expectation from Ofsted and the national curriculum that schools teach pupils to read phonetically, learn maths tables and gain the intuitive knowledge that will save them when their computer or calculator throws up some odd spellings or calculations. If that happens, kitemarked alternatives to Capita may even be a better bet.

Similarly, the main reason why specialist schools have been a success in lifting secondary school achievement is because schools have to set targets (not ministers) and are judged against them every few years in a national bidding process with national goals. Up to £150k a year rides on the results. There is a balance to be struck here, and some national pressure and acountability initiatives, including floor targets (which Ed Balls has extended sensibly) have made a real difference. With the government and the Tories battling to appease the teaching unions over testing - from scrapping Key Stage 3 to Tory plans to abandon national primary tests -there have been worrying signs that the balance is tilting too far from the interests of parents and pupils.

Today's package is good in that it shows some sense of purpose on public sector reform that had clearly been lost in recent months, and in that it has a strong focus on information and rights for parents. But it is also important that it starts to reverse the trend against accountability, which includes national standards. And that means avoiding sending the sort of signals given to teachers in last Friday's Guardian headline, which I understand went rather further than intended by the government. Those in government believe their reforms will provide parents with real power in a system of strong accountability: I hope for the sake of the next generation of pupils they are right.

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