Class politics

MikeWatson.jpgMike Watson on the missed opportunities for schools – and children – in the Education and Adoption Bill

As the Education and Adoption Bill gets its Second Reading in the Lords today, Ministers are still failing spectacularly to address the most pressing issue facing our school system today: the ongoing problem of recruitment and retention of teachers.

Incredibly, the eight pages and twelve clauses relating to education in the Bill contain just a single mention of the word ‘teacher’. Even then, it’s merely a reference to a pay and conditions warning notice. The absence from the proposals of those who actually deliver education in our schools demonstrates that the crucial role of teachers is not just an afterthought to this government. It isn’t a thought at all.

Plus, also notable by their absence are any attempt to tackle the funding crisis affecting many schools, and the question of how to provide enough places to match the increase in birth rate.

With regard to 'Adoption' aspects of the Bill, the government has set out support for local authorities to combine into regional adoption agencies. Labour support this in principle, along with the aim of speeding up adoption rates, but we need to ensure that smaller, more specialised voluntary agencies are not squeezed out by the move.

What the Bill definitely does is provide a framework for fast-tracking local authority schools into sponsored academy status, by allowing the Education Secretary to intervene directly in so-called ‘coasting schools’. When the Bill was published, the government didn’t even have a clear view of how to define this but we now know that ‘coasting’ relies solely on performance data – taking no account of individual school circumstances. This categorisation will impact disproportionately on schools with more socially-disadvantaged pupils, perversely those in most need of assistance.

There is now a strong evidence base to show that there is no ‘academy effect’, no silver bullet in terms of such status leading to improvement. Indeed, there’s plenty of evidence (including the Education Department’s own research) that sponsored academies in many chains perform worse overall than the equivalent maintained schools. So the government’s persistence in changing the structure and governance of schools and a focus on forced academisation is unlikely to have the effect they are seeking.

Democracy is also under attack in the Bill. As things currently stand, the governing body of a school is required to consult parents before it is converted into an academy. But the proposals would remove these requirements where a school labelled ‘coasting’ is forced to convert. The removal of the right to consultation denies parents, the governing body and staff their only reasonable opportunity to be involved in what is a fundamental change to the school’s ethos. That threat has no place in a democracy and these clauses should be removed. Adding insult to injury is the fact that the ‘coasting’ label would only apply to maintained schools, even though many academies are likely to meet the criteria that have now been laid down.

The Bill would pass many powers assumed by the Education Secretary to the eight Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs). This means that formal decisions on suitable academy sponsors and levels of funding will now be taken by unelected and unaccountable RSCs, whose power over local schools has increased significantly. At the same time, elected local authorities and representative governors stand to have their influence diminished. Among other things, the Education Secretary will be able to make decisions in secret, with no consultation, on which sponsor to allocate to a school.This fundamentally undermines the principles of local democracy.

In short, this Bill takes school oversight, parental involvement and support for head teachers backwards. The government has used its only piece of education legislation this session to further their ideologically-driven agenda rather than getting to the root of the main challenges facing our education system. We must work together with schools themselves, parents and local authorities to drive up standards and help pupils from all backgrounds fulfil their potential. Our country’s children deserve better than what is offered by this Bill. Much better.

Lord Mike Watson is Shadow Education Minister in the House of Lords

Published 20th October 2015

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