Mixed messages from Tory conference

07 Oct 2010

 I've just returned from the Tory party conference in Birmingham where there were some confusingly mixed messages on education policy.

Michael Gove's conference speech set the tone: he called for greater autonomy for schools and greater freedom for teachers but, in almost the same breath, gave them a whole list of things he expected them to do (history taught in a particular way, no 'pseudo subjects', and a long list of authors such as Dryden and Jane Austen).

So is this freedom to teach what and how you want, so long as it fits with the Gove view of the world?

And there were several other examples of confusing or mixed messages. It began with the pre-conference announcement that the government would end the so-called 'no touch' rule, which apparently prevented teachers touching pupils either to discipline or comfort them.

It made a good sound-bite and won lots of media coverage. But I have yet to find a school where they have a 'no touch' policy and there is certainly no law or regulation which stops teachers from touching pupils if they need to either for the safety of the pupil or of other pupils.

A more serious issue, though, is the whole question of whether the government wants schools to compete or to co-operate. The messages are, again, mixed. 

The 'free schools' and academies programmes are all about generating a supply-side revolution, creating a market in which parental choice can operate, boosting good schools and forcing bad ones out of business or to improve. 

But, as one Tory county councillor from Surrey commented, running a local authority will become much more difficult if lots of his schools convert to academies. And, as he asked, why should they have to? Why doesn't the government give the same freedoms and autonomies to all schools. 

In Surrey, he sad, the schools had no desire to leave the authority, which holds back the minimum amount of funding.

And this is the problem for local authorities, if some schools become academies - and if they are the 'outstanding' schools with few problems - they will take with them money the council needs to provide central services to all schools. Councils will be forced to lose staff and to cut back services.

And since the 'outstanding' schools mostly have fewer pupils with special needs or from poorer homes they will get a greater share of the local authority's central funding than they would normally receive. This leaves those schools that remain, which have greater needs, with less support.

The Surrey councillor sad he would rather all his schools became academies rather than losing a few.

Now the government does insist that it wants all academies to help neighbouring schools that are struggling. This is good but there is no requirement for them to do so.

Moreover what we need in the system is not just good schools stepping in to save struggling neighbours, but all schools working together. However, in a per pupil funding system, giving some schools an edge over others (through their academy freedoms) or encouraging new providers to pop up in an area, poses a threat to the survival of existing schools. It is not conducive to collaboration. 

There was some gung-ho stuff on the new free schools but the reality is that there are still very few in the pipeline (just 16) and it seems several of these will miss essential deadlines (such as finding a property or appointing a Principal) and this would mean very few indeed opening next year.

Around the edge of the conference, several for-profit school operators were wringing their hands that they are not able to open and operate free schools. They say they are having good discussions with ministers - but there are big political obstacles (not least the opposition of the Liberal Democrats).

But if the free schools programme (the one big idea of the Tory manifesto on education) struggles, ministers may soon be tempted to welcome in for-profit providers. 

Finally, although grass-roots Tories would still Iove to open new grammar schools, Mr Gove made clear he has no appetite for this by completely side-stepping questions on the topic at a fringe event (the only chance Tory representatives had a chance to raise the issue after a highly stage-managed public services debate n the main hall).

For more on the Tory conference, see my analysis for BBC News Online: www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-11483582







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