Through the vaguest promises, Tony Blair has managed to dissuade many backbenchers from open revolt against his education plans, though others remain firm.
It is not too late to oppose this bill. Everything now depends on a strong public campaign, with union branches and others organising meetings in every city. Every education union conference will criticise the bill this week.
The local elections provide a key opportunity to oppose it.
Opposition exploded when ministers announced that schools could set their own admissions policies. Every school, primary and secondary, could decide which children to allow in and which to turn away.
Blair overplayed his hand and had to pacify backbenchers with the promise of a compulsory admissions code, but doubts remain. Selection by “ability” is banned, but not by “aptitude”, whatever that means. Interviews are banned, but not auditions.
Schools are permitted to hold tests and choose a proportion from each “ability band”. At first sight this seems fair, but deviously it presents alternative methods of selection.
A school in a very deprived city is allowed to set bands according to national averages. This means it could draw the highest achievers from across the city to make up its top band and deprive other schools.
One of the new academies holds tests on a Saturday morning. This is a clever way of making sure that only the keenest and most organised parents get their children in.
The new law encourages “trust schools” or “independent state schools”. Blair’s expressed aim is that all schools go down this route. The White Paper preceding the bill promised to make inspections much tougher, forcing schools to fail so that they could be closed and reopened as trust schools.
They will be run by “business sponsors” and “faith groups” who can appoint almost all the governors, employ the head and staff and decide how the school is run.
Though funded from our taxes, they will be beyond any democratic control. Parents can no longer appeal to local councillors if things go wrong.
Although the sponsors cannot make a profit from a school’s budget it is a kind of privatisation.
They are formally run by “charities” but there are many charities whose chief executives pay themselves massive salaries. Like some academies, the trust schools will be able to “buy services” from the sponsors and their cronies without the usual restrictions.
Worst of all, this private management of schools will help distort the curriculum to fit a neo-liberal agenda. It will accelerate the changes embodied in clause 61—a section which has largely gone unnoticed.
The new law divides the curriculum into two. Fourteen year olds must choose between a vocational diploma or a broad academic curriculum.
Clause 61 expressly states that their entitlement is either/or. If they opt for vocational, they have no entitlement to history, geography, art, music, drama, media, technology or a language.
This is completely new. In comprehensive schools of the 1970s and 1980s, nobody ever suggested that pupils doing car mechanics or childcare should be barred from history or drama.
Even Margaret Thatcher’s national curriculum was based on a common entitlement for all. It has taken New Labour to divide pupils into vocationals and academics. We now face a secondary modern within each comprehensive school.
Everybody will study English, maths and science, but the government is even creating alternative versions of these. The vocational track will do “functional literacy” instead of English, stripped bare of personal writing, fiction and drama, debate and media.
In effect, this is a recognition that all the talk about the opportunities of a “knowledge economy” was cant. Neo-liberal policies have increasingly divided us into higher skilled “knowledge workers” and low-paid “service sector”. Both groups, of course, are to be “flexible” and exploitable.
Preparation for the “knowledge workers” is through a broad academic curriculum, though “delivered” under such high pressure that it will prevent any deeper, more critical thinking.
The service sector, on job training from age 14, will be graced with a diploma but still trapped in low-paid occupations. They will have been denied school subjects that might provide a foundation for understanding society.
As the US historian Howard Zinn said, “If you don’t know history, it’s as if you were born yesterday.”
We should be demanding an entitlement to a broad curriculum for all young people—helping them understand issues such as poverty, war and global warming, and to express their ideas in different styles and media.
The new law also gives schools unprecedented powers over young people. Penalties include detentions on Saturdays and Sundays. Non-teaching staff and unpaid volunteers are allowed to give out punishments.
It permits the use of force not only to prevent violence but even to stop people damaging their own property.
When parents don’t support this, these privately run schools can ask the courts to impose a parenting order. What kind of democracy could even consider this?
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