FORUM - ISSN 0963-8253
Volume 43 Number 3 (2001)

Clyde Chitty pages 113-114
DOI: 10.2304/forum.2001.43.3.1


This is the first number of FORUM to be prepared and edited in its entirety after the June 2001 General Election; and this extended Editorial provides me with an ideal opportunity to both look back over the four years of the first Blair administration and, at the same time, provide a personal assessment of prospects for the future in the light of the policies outlined in the Education Green Paper Schools: building on success: raising standards, promoting diversity, achieving results, launched back in February. It may well be that the key proposals in the Green Paper will have been 'updated' in the form of a new White Paper by the time this Editorial appears; but one imagines that the main trends of government policy will merely have been confirmed.

After 18 years of coping with the wild excesses of a succession of right-wing Tory governments, some FORUM readers might well have been prepared to give the Blair administration the benefit of the doubt where education policy is concerned. Yet the contents of the Green Paper, along with the Prime Minister's own well-publicised pronouncements on the failings of comprehensive education and the need for universal streaming and setting, seem to me to put the whole issue beyond question: put simply, New Labour is implacably opposed to everything this journal has campaigned for since the late 1950s. It matters not that Estelle Morris has now replaced David Blunkett as Education Secretary; the policies endorsing choice, diversity, selection and privatisation remain the same, and they must be challenged at every level.

It is quite extraordinary but very revealing that the Prime Minister saw no reason to distance himself from the deliberate and insulting claim made by his official spokesperson Alastair Campbell that the publication of the Green Paper meant that the day of 'the bog-standard comprehensive' was clearly over. Indeed, by arguing that the Green Paper was actually ushering in 'a post-comprehensive era', Tony Blair was giving welcome ammunition to all the opponents of comprehensive education, provoking headlines in the right-wing press like 'Death of the Comprehensive' in The Daily Mail and 'Comprehensives have failed' in The Daily Telegraph. From now on, according to the Prime Minister, everyone should be aware that 'promoting diversity' was indeed synonymous with 'raising standards' and 'achieving results'.

The Conservative Legacy

To be fair, it is, of course, true that New Labour inherited a sharply divided system of state schools at the secondary level. In addition to 164 grammar schools, concentrated in 36 local authorities in England, there were 1155 grant-maintained schools, accounting for 19.6% of students in secondary schools (but only 2.8% of primary-age children), 15 City Technology Colleges and 181 specialist schools and colleges, 151 specialising in technology and 30 in modern languages. Any attempt to create a successful comprehensive structure subject to fair and transparent admissions rules clearly faced formidable obstacles.

Yet the first Blair administration actually saw no need to tackle this degree of diversity and create a more unified system of schools. Nothing was done to secure the abolition of the existing 164 grammar schools, with campaigning groups finding it extremely difficult to activate the necessary local ballots of parents. In particular, the outcome of the ballot held in Ripon in March 2000, where groups of influential parents were able to secure the long term future of Ripon Grammar School, left many campaigners feeling angry and dispirited. Then again, there was concern that the phasing out of grant-maintained schools was to be accompanied by the introduction of three new categories of school: community, aided and foundation - with only community schools subject to admissions procedures determined by the local authority. And finally, it was a cause of much dismay and regret that incoming New Labour ministers were embracing the Conservatives' 'specialist schools' project with a zeal of which John Patten and Gillian Shephard would have been proud. By the beginning of 2001, the number of such schools had risen from 181 to 608. Moreover, the 1998 School Standards and Framework Act stipulated that specialist schools could select up to ten per cent of their intake on the basis of their aptitude for one or other of four 'specialist subject areas': technology, languages, sports and the arts.

The Programme for the Second Blair Administration

The Green Paper argues that primary education has already been 'transformed' with the introduction of such successful initiatives as the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies. It is now time to perform similar miracles with the secondary sector; and in this respect, there are a number of major themes and policy alignments running through the document, notably:

a rejection of the principles underpinning the era of the 'one size fits all' comprehensive (though it is, of course, debatable whether such an era ever actually existed);

a concern to see the promotion of diversity among secondary schools and the extension of autonomy for 'successful' schools; and

a desire for private and voluntary sector sponsors to play a greater role in the organisation of secondary education.

As a prime means of promoting 'diversity', the Government intends to accelerate the Specialist Schools Project so that there will be around 1,000 specialist secondary schools in operation by September 2003.

We now know that all specialist schools and colleges will receive a £100,000 capital grant plus £123 per student per year - a total of £225,000 for a school of 1,000 students. This will prove particularly divisive over the next five years as nearly half (46%) of all maintained secondary schools become specialist schools, while the other half have to be content with non-specialist status and no additional funding.

As an extension of the cherished Specialist Schools Programme, the Government intends to introduce in due course a new category of Advanced Specialist School which will be open to 'high-performing' schools after five years as 'specialist schools'. They will be expected to 'volunteer' to take on a number of innovative ideas from a 'menu' developed centrally by the new DfES (Department for Education and Skills). In return, they will receive an additional capital investment to strengthen their role as 'centres of excellence'. An important aspect of their work might well be initial teacher training, with many of these institutions playing a leading role as Training Schools.

Then, as yet another element in this bewildering array of new institutions, there are the Beacon Schools (the subject of a critical appraisal by David Webster in this number of Forum). These new Schools are intended to develop and spread good practice among neighbouring establishments. Back in March 1999, David Blunkett announced that there were to be around 1,000 Beacon Schools in operation by September 2002. It is now intended that there will be 1,000 of these Schools in existence by September 2001, a year ahead of schedule, including some 250 at secondary level.

The Green Paper is also anxious to see an increase in the number and variety of schools within the state system supported by the Church of England and other major faith groups. Some 560 secondary schools are already provided by the Church of England or the Catholic Church; and the Government wishes to see more Muslim, Sikh and Greek Orthodox Schools brought inside the state system and funded on the same basis as existing 'aided' schools.

In addition to more 'faith-based' schools, which act as their own admissions authority, the Government is also anxious to promote an increase in the number of schools that owe their existence to private sponsorship. The City Academy Programme, launched in March 2000, enables sponsors from the private and voluntary sectors to establish new schools whose running costs are then fully met by the state. Many have, in fact, seen the Programme as being modelled on the City Technology Colleges Project founded by the Conservatives in the late 1980s and which proved to be such a costly failure in its original format.

At the same time, the Government intends to develop a new model which will enable an external private or voluntary sector sponsor to take over responsibility for a 'weak' or 'failing' school against a fixed-term contract of, say, five to seven years, with renewal subject to performance. This will be based on the situation at King's Manor School in Guildford, where '3Es', a charitable off-shoot of the City Technology College at Kingshurst in the West Midlands, was given responsibility for establishing a new school in February 1999.

Other policies for tackling 'underperformance' and 'failure', such as the Excellence in Cities Programme launched in March 1999, are also discussed in the Green Paper, though there is little prominence given to the Education Action Zones Initiative which formed such an important part of the Excellence in Schools White Paper published in July 1997. What is stressed is that secondary schools operating in 'challenging circumstances' will be expected to achieve at least 15% of students gaining five GCSE A to C grades by 2003; 20% by 2004; and 25% by 2006.

As far as the internal organisation of schools is concerned, the Government wants to see more setting within subjects, including 'express sets' for 11 to 14 year olds to enable the 'most able' in each year group to advance beyond the level set for their age and to take Key Stage Three tests early. At Key Stage Four, students will still take a number of GCSEs, but, increasingly, they will be able to mix 'academic' and 'vocational' GCSEs and work-based options.

Towards a New Education System

There is very little in the Green Paper to please the supporters of a unified system of secondary education; the emphasis throughout is on competition and division.

Yet as long ago as 1993, the National Commission on Education was expressing concern, in its Final Report Learning to Succeed, about the Major Government's obsession with creating 'new types of secondary school' and warning that 'there is a serious danger of a hierarchy of good, adequate and "sink" schools emerging within the maintained system'.

Some headteachers and union leaders believe that all will be well if all secondary schools are allowed to become specialist schools, and perhaps there is a case for making the best of what has already happened (see John Dunford's piece in this number), but this is to ignore some very real problems. What happens, for example, if the local specialist school does not offer the specialism many parents want? And, in any case, in a highly competitive and divided society, specialisms can never be equal: they rapidly become ranked in a hierarchy of status.

It is also absurd for politicians to claim that greater diversity within the system will result in a greater choice of school for most parents. All the available evidence indicates that in a fragmented and layered system, it is invariably the schools that choose parents, rather than the other way round. Indeed, it was Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach, the right-wing Chairperson of the School Examinations and Assessment Council, who admitted back in February 1992 that 'if you give parents real choice in the system, it is inevitable (and probably desirable) that the schools themselves will demand to choose the kind of pupils that come'.

The education system towards which we are heading has nothing to commend it. It is part of an ugly concept of a meritocratic society which benefits the few at the expense of the many.

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To cite this article
Clyde Chitty (2001) Editorial, FORUM, 43(3), 113-114. https://doi.org/10.2304/forum.2001.43.3.1

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