Thursday, 13 May 2010

Back to basics?

I've written this piece on the new Government's education policies for the Public Finance blog:

The huge rainbow has been removed from Sanctuary buildings, the headquarters of the reborn Department for Education, as civil servants work hard to remove any trace of Ed Balls’s old children’s department. Michael Gove, the new education secretary, has managed to keep his programme largely intact in this week’s coalition agreement with the Liberal Democrats. Now all he has to do is implement his plans for free schools, a pupil premium and more rigorous standards.

Gove said in his first message to staff at his new Department that he wants it to refocus on supporting teaching and learning. The department may be slimmed down in the forthcoming Spending Review, but it also seems set to regain responsibility for a slimmed down curriculum from the soon-to-be-scrapped Qualifications and Curriculum Development Authority. There will be changes – sometimes more cosmetic than real – to suggest a tougher approach to school discipline and more rigorous exam standards.

But the real challenges will come with free schools and the pupil premium. The coalition agreement says that academy expansion will come in response to parental demand. The reality is that it is likely to come through an extension of the existing academies programme, with failing schools given just a year to shape-up, and by allowing successful schools to acquire academy freedoms. Where there is parental demand – with a few high profile exceptions – it may often be about keeping open otherwise unsustainable small schools or opening minority faith schools. Gove’s real challenge will be in engendering a genuine enthusiasm for a policy seen as the most radical in his party’s manifesto, and he will need to re-establish a schools commissioner, a Blair innovation quietly abandoned by Balls.

The pupil premium was an idea in both the Liberal and Conservative manifestos. In their manifesto, the Liberal Democrats costed the proposal at £2.5 billion. It may be less come the spending review. Schools currently receive most of their funding on a per-pupil basis. Local authorities create a ‘fair funding formula’ to take account of issues such as deprivation or pupils with special needs. While there is currently substantial extra money allocated to schools with significant numbers of disadvantaged pupils, there is no automatic additional per pupil sum available to all schools. The Liberal Democrat proposals could have provided an extra £2,400 per pupil on free school meals.

Additionally, it is not clear how it would be distributed. At present, national government makes allowances in its dedicated schools grant for additional needs but the formula is determined locally. As part of the spending review, there could also be a look at the range of additional resources made available for deprivation and initiatives, and the pooling of these into a pupil premium. An important reason for the premium, in Conservative eyes, was its potential to incentivise good schools to take more disadvantaged students. The premium would provide extra resources for such pupils in the suburbs and shires, as well as inner city areas.

However, unless the government can countenance a move towards a more open fair admissions policy – with more ability banding and lotteries to enable a wider range of pupils to apply to good schools unhindered by narrow catchment areas – it is hard to see how the premium could have this desirable impact. Many academies currently use such admissions criteria, but they are unpopular with middle class parents who find that living near a good school no longer guarantees a place there.

But while implementing these policies is one thing, ensuring that they impact on standards is another. Labour had far too many targets, but those that achieved minimum standards were an unsung success, lifting thousands of schools in deprived areas. Without such floor targets and with less curriculum control, the new government will need to be sure that its levels of accountability provide the degree of demand and responsiveness necessary to lift standards further. Strong levers matter as much as radical policies.

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