Teachers slam Tory education policy
Schools news
Polly Curtis
Tuesday June 29, 2004

The new Tory education policy has failed to win the support of schools as teachers condemned proposals as "completely unworkable".

The Conservative party's proposals, officially launched today, aim to give parents greater choice over their children's schooling.

Under the plans, parents could choose to spend state funds on private school fees, the best schools would be allowed to expand and a whole raft of new schools would be run by religious organisations or private schools, catering to the taxpayers' pound. Failing schools would have to "up their game" to attract pupils, or face closure.

Meanwhile, the role of local education authorities would be severely limited, with schools having the right to set their own admissions policies, opening the door to the return of widespread selection. And behaviour policies would be toughened up to abolish a pupil's right to appeal against exclusion.

Chris Keates, acting general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said the party's proposals to tackle pupil indiscipline had merit and were likely to be welcomed by many teachers, but she added: "The main plank of the 'right to choose package' is completely unworkable. "Freedom of choice is at best an illusion and at worst it amounts to the law of the jungle.

"Freeing schools to set policies on admissions and attendance and a virtual abolition of the role of local education authorities is simply a more extreme version of the failed grant maintained schools policy of the last Conservative government. The sense of déjà vu is chilling."

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said the proposals on choice went too far. "They will result in an even steeper hierarchy of schools than we have already, making life very difficult for the schools at the bottom of the pile and reducing the life chances of the children who attend them.

"Parents are being told that they have greater choice, but market-based policies inevitably mean that schools choose pupils; pupils do not choose schools. Parent choice is really parent preference."

Mr Dunford added that appeal panels for pupils who have been excluded should be retained, saying they were a "useful safeguard" for parents who feel their children have been wronged.

The shadow education minister, Tim Collins, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that abolishing LEA control of admissions would not mean abolishing LEAs altogether. "There will be an important residual function [for] local education authorities.

"We are going to make all schools grant-maintained. That means they can set their own budgets, run their own affairs. But there are residual functions for LEAs that we will consult on, and that includes the right to make sure that every child in a local area gets into a local school. We will address that issue.

"We are actually going to create 500,000 extra school places. So far from kids being left out, it is actually much less likely than now that kids will be left out. There will be much more choice for parents".

However, the Liberal Democrat leader, Charles Kennedy, also speaking on the Today programme, said the Conservative party and the government's preoccupation with giving parents choice was a "false debate".

"They are setting up a debate here which in fact misses the point," he said. "Our argument is that, whether you take health or whether you take education, in fact, for the vast majority of people, priority number one is quality local provision of a service when they need it."

The schools standards minister, David Miliband, claimed Tory plans would lead to lower standards in schools.

He said: "The basic principle of the Tory education policy is to cut money from state schools to subsidise private education. Their plans would take at least £1bn out of schools to set up a bureaucratic voucher scheme and subsidise private education.

"It is also clear that Tories continue to be at complete sixes and sevens on their plans. They cannot agree by how much taxpayers will subsidise private education. They cannot agree on the deadweight cost of their plans. They cannot say what the value of their voucher is. And they cannot say whether the voucher will be worth more for poorer families, more for children with learning difficulties, or more in areas like London, where schools' costs are higher."

He added: "By abolishing catchment area rules every parent who wants to send their child to their local school faces a lottery, not knowing on what basis their child will be admitted. At the same time, heads and local education authorities will have to invent criteria to make their decisions, causing chaos across the system.

"Whilst Labour's programme of investment and reform is raising standards across the board, the Tory agenda of cuts and privatisation would lead to lower standards in our schools."

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