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Issue 55

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Issue 55, April 2001

Labour's second-term education plans

NEW LABOUR's plans for schools in a second term of government have been set out in a dubiously named Green Paper, Schools - Building on Success. It paints a picture of New Labour 'success' that few teachers, parents or pupils would recognise.

Labour will point to improved results in primary literacy and numeracy tests and secondary GCSE exams. However, these improvements have not been achieved by proper investment but by putting intolerable burdens on teachers who, by official figures, now work well over 50 hours a week.

This deadening workload is one of the main reasons why teachers are walking away from the classroom, leaving behind a growing crisis of teacher shortages. Another is deteriorating pay but instead of a proper pay rise for all, Labour offers more divisive Performance Related Pay. Schools will also be allowed 'greater freedoms over teachers' pay and conditions', signalling a further attack on the trade unions.

Teachers are also disillusioned by a government that increasingly wants to dictate not just what is taught but how teachers should teach. Their methods may increase test scores in the short-term but there is also evidence of a steep rise in pupil disaffection with a curriculum geared to testing and as the self-esteem of those that don't succeed is stripped away.

Despite Labour's claims, schools are suffering from the cumulative effects of years of underfunding. If elected, Treasury forecasts indicate that Labour will still spend an average of only 4.9% of national income on education in their two terms of government - less than the 5% spent in the last term of the last Tory government.


Labour boasts that it will soon meet its target of reducing all infant class sizes to 30. They fail to point out that class sizes in secondary schools are increasing. For example, the National Union of Teachers estimate that, on top of an estimated 3,000 vacant posts currently in London, 6,185 more teachers would need to be recruited in the capital alone to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio back down to the 1987 figure.

The reality is that Britain's education system is crumbling. Guardian journalist, Nick Davies, whose damning descriptions of the real state of our schools have earned him a personal denunciation from Blunkett and Blair, concluded that 'the entire strategy of Mr.Blunkett's department is based on an analysis of school failure which has the intellectual weight of a joke in a Christmas cracker'.

Instead of blaming teachers and the supposed failings of 'trendy teaching methods' like New Labour , Davies rightly points to the impact of rising child poverty on schools and the growing polarisation between those at the top and the bottom of the school performance 'league tables'. That gap could become a chasm under the Green Paper's plans for 'increased diversity'. In their claims to be building a 'post-comprehensive' era, Labour propose nothing less than the abandonment of comprehensive secondary schooling.

Blair's press spokesperson, Alastair Campbell, described the Green Paper as heralding the end of the 'bog-standard comprehensive'. This is an insult to the successes of comprehensive schools which hugely increased the numbers of pupils leaving school with exam qualifications.


Labour's plans will mean a massive expansion in both overt and hidden selection. Nearly half of all secondaries are to become 'specialist' schools by 2006. These are allowed to select 10% of their intake by 'aptitude' for their specialism as well as winning additional funding. Labour also proposes the expansion of church schools and more City Academies, sponsored by private business.

They justify this proposal by pointing to the good exam results of many specialist and church schools. This isn't down to their successful 'ethos' however, as the Green Paper claims, but largely because they are able to attract the pupils that will maintain their higher league table positions at the expense of their competitors.

The 10% of pupils that can be directly selected at specialist schools is only part of the picture. Even without this, the schools' perceived higher status in the community means they are likely to be oversubscribed and can then more easily pick and choose the pupils they want. This is particularly the case with church schools who are allowed to interview pupils. This is supposedly to see if they match the 'character' of the school but is really another means of academic selection.

Allowing half of secondaries to build a privileged position means condemning the other half to be the under-staffed sink schools at the bottom of the pile. Even the editorial of the main education journal, the Times Educational Supplement, warned the Green Paper was 'a recipe for creating secondary moderns rather than for modernising secondaries'.


Increasing division is also going to be opened up within the curriculum itself with more division between academic and vocational 'pathways' at 14. Schools are also to encourage 'citizenship'. With schools run by churches and big business, it's easy to see what kind of citizens they want schools to produce.

Under New Labour, the privatisation of education will continue. Blair and Blunkett aren't just looking at letting the profiteers run local education authorities (LEAs) or rebuild schools, they want to encourage fully privatised schools. 3E's Enterprises have just set up the first federation of privately-owned schools based on the first privatised school in the country, Kings school in Guildford and their Kingshurst City Technology College in Solihull. They hope a second term of New Labour will mean that they can get their hands on many more schools.

But polls show that privatisation and the abandonment of comprehensive education are opposed by the majority of working-class and middle-class voters. At a recent public meeting in Lewisham called by parents to complain about why they couldn't get their children into local secondary schools, Socialist Party councillor Ian Page was loudly applauded when he attacked the selection at the local City Technology College and church schools. Parents turned on the local Labour MP, Joan Ruddock, and demanded to know whether she was going to oppose the Green Paper !

Socialists and trade unionists have to go on the offensive against these attacks on educational gains won by the labour movement over decades. We have to expose Labour's attacks and demand fully staffed and resourced comprehensive schools for all our children and a complete end to selection both by test and by interview.


Martin Powell-Davies

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