It says everything about New Labour that Tony Blair wants the destruction of comprehensive education to be his lasting legacy. And he’s relying on an alliance with the Tories to do it.
New Labour’s education bill published on Tuesday marks a fundamental attack on what is left of comprehensive education.
Under the guise of buzzwords such as “choice” and “diversity” it is going further than the Tories managed when they encouraged schools to opt out of local authority control.
No wonder Tory education spokesperson David Willetts says he is excited by aspects of the bill.
Despite minor concessions, made in order to buy off Labour rebels, the bill opens the door to further selection and, crucially, aims to turn schools into separate “trusts” which will compete with each other.
It gives the education secretary the power to veto any local authority that wants to build a new comprehensive school.
That points to the reality behind talk of choice. The government is in fact denying choice, by forcing schools to go down its preferred route.
While the government has been forced to retreat from a free-for-all admissions policy in which each school would decide who it takes, the bill still increases the scope for schools to select children.
Instead of an overall plan for admissions across a local authority there will be an “admissions code”. That is to be overseen by a tier of bureaucracy.
It is a recipe for constant infighting as schools are encouraged both to compete and supposedly to come together to stop competition getting out of hand.
The bill’s main purpose is to drastically reduce the power of democratically elected local authorities. Instead power will transfer to those running trust schools – such as businessmen – who will not be elected to governing bodies.
The concessions the government has made are designed to win over the 100 backbench Labour MPs who have suggested they will vote against the bill this month.
Some of those rebels have already indicated they are close to falling in behind the government. But opposition among parents and teachers is growing. About 150 people attended a meeting in Camden, north London, last week to oppose the New Labour “reforms”.
And 600 people came to a meeting in Merton, south London, to discuss plans for a city academy, a school which is paid for by public money but is wholly outside the state sector and any democratic control.
The meeting voted overwhelmingly against setting up an academy in the borough.
Teachers and parents were set to protest outside the department for education and science in London on Thursday of this week. Blair says the education bill is the “crux” of his “reform agenda”, that is to entrench neo-liberal measures across the public sector.
He is trying to push it through in the month of March, when he already faces a major anti-war demonstration and a planned strike by 1.5 million workers in defence of local government pensions.
Parents groups and activists in the teaching unions are aiming to maximise the pressure on MPs to oppose the bill and also to make it an issue in the local elections in May.
March and rally for a comprehensive future, Thursday 2 Mar, 5.30pm, assemble Ambrosden Ave, London (by Westminster Cathedral)