Sunday, 30 May 2010

Education in Brent and Coalition Policies

The plethora of policy announcements on education from the Coalition in the last few days is confusing to say the least. With right-wing Tory, Michael Gove and left-wing Liberal Democrat Sarah Teather (MP for Brent Central) trying to work together despite clear ideological differences, we are likely to see more confusion and possible conflict in the future. At present Tory cuts and privatisation sit alongside the Lib Dem 'pupil premium' which aims to help youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Alperton High School, Cardinal Hinsley High School, Copland Community School and Queen's Park Community School are all likely to lose Building Schools for the Future Funding and there may also be a question mark over completion of work at the Crest Academies (previously the John Kelly schools). An extension into the primary phase of Capital City Academy may be reviewed. In addition several primary schools ear-marked for a rebuild or expansion may see their schemes put on the back burner.

The Coalition has announced that schools deemed 'outstanding' by Ofsted will be eligible to convert to academies gaining 10-12 percent additional funding at the expense of other schools, as well as more control over teachers' pay and conditions and an ability to divert from the National Curriculum. As if this is not incentive enough, all outstanding schools will be exempted from Ofsted inspections. 'Outstanding' schools in Brent include St Joseph's Infants, Wembley; Roe Green Infants, Kingsbury; Oakington Manor Primary, Wembley; and Convent of Jesus and Mary, JFS and Wembley High in the secondary sector.

When a similar move took place some years ago, with schools able to get grant maintained status with additional freedoms, it impacted on schools that maintained their community school status. At the time the then Willesden High School (now City Academy) and Wembley High School experienced difficulties caused by receiving a disproportionate number of special needs pupils and new arrivals to the country. Rather than reduce inequality such policies tend to increase it. Although outstanding schools can get academy status automatically, all schools will be encouraged to apply for it. As each academy will take additional funds from the main funding pool, non-academy schools will have reduced funding for staffing and resources. The academies will also have the freedom to offer additional pay incentives and thus cream off teaching staff from other schools. Heads and governing bodies will come under pressure to seek academy status to improve things for 'our children'.

The need to find a sponsor has now been removed and the policy turned on its head. Instead of offering a 'last chance' to schools deemed to be failing, academy status is now a reward for satisfying Ofsted. For the left the argument that academies are a form of privatisation has to be refined and attention shifted to democratic accountability. The so called 'Free Schools' however may be the new vehicle for introducing private profit into the state education system.

The Conservative policy on 'free schools', enabling parents, teacher groups and other associations to set up their own schools, is clearly one that will need additional funding and take funds away from mainstream schools and programmes such as Building Schools for the Future. The Coalition have said that existing buildings could be taken over and converted raising questions about the maintenance of teaching and play space standards as well as the accessibility rights of disabled students. If funds come from the government, that will reduce money available to other schools. At a time of public funding cuts this may well mean that the government will seek investment from the private sector - who will of course demand a decent rate of return.

When the possibility of central funding of schools was mooted a few years ago, the idea encountered opposition from the government. The current mixture of funding means that blame for cuts and under-funding can be shifted from central government to local authorities. Anti-cuts campaigners demonstrate at the local Town Hall rather than the Department for Education. Although the government has said it will 'protect' funding to schools, it will cut funding to local authorities. Demands from services such as social services, social care etc, will mean that some money will have to be diverted by the local authorities.  In addition centrally funded initiatives such as those for extended schools, 1:1 tuition for children falling behind and music tuition are also going to be cut. A Labour controlled Brent Council will have to implement Tory-Lib Dem cuts.

This is the question Sarah Teather will have to ask herself. The Coalition Agreement states that the government will introduce 'a significant premium for disadvantaged pupils from outside the schoolos budget by reductions in spending elsewhere'. 'Elsewhere' could be other aspects of education spending. However no figures yet exist, despite the Lib Dem's promise of £2.5 billion, and no starting date has been fixed.

The Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education and the Alliance for Inclusive Education have both attacked plans to water down inclusion. Simone Aspis, of the AIE, and a Brent Green party candidate at the recent local elections told the Times Educational Supplement, "It's an absolute disgrace that a coalitiion that talks  about promoting fairness and equality wants to remove disabled children's rights to access mainstream schooling. This policy will turn the clocks back by 30 years, where disabled children will grow up living segregated lives."

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