Planning on the back of an envelope

Education planning now seems to be in the hands of either a member of the House of Lords for the Tory Party or groups of parents for the Labour Party. I am not sure my own Lib DemS even understands the concept of planning, just as they also don’t sometimes seem to understand how markets operate.

Lord Baker’s idea of vocational colleges for the 14-18 sector chimes well with my 2002 Report on ‘No Child Left Behind’ for the then Lib Dem education spokesperson, now Lord Willis, where I was one of the early advocates for a 14-18 sector. The difference was that I wanted the sector as part of rational planning for the whole age-group, not just the abstracting of limited numbers of young people across the country to attend such colleges. How will it really work in rural areas unless someone pays for the transport costs? In London the Mayor has so much cash that he can provide free transport for secondary age students to travel to school anywhere in the Capital. Locally, in Oxfordshire, the ruling Conservative and Independent Coalition will probably struggle against budget cutbacks to maintain the present level of home to school transport provision in 2014.

If the Tories have abrogated planning to Lord Baker then Labour seems, according to the new Shadow Secretary of State, to be happy to pass the baton for the future of our school system to random groups of parents that presumably want private schools on the rates. I suppose that is one way of reducing the influence of the independent schools, but it will come with a hefty funding cost or will produce a lot of disappointed parents. But, perhaps Labour has noticed that relatively speaking apparently fewer new schools backed by parents and teachers are now being approved than in the first rounds of free school applications.

There has been a lot of thinking about schooling over the past decade by the many lobby groups and think tanks, as well as national anguish about the performance of our school system. So we are not short of ideas, what we are short of is proper planning. Why spend money on new schools when we have the FE sector that can now take pupils from 14. The FE sector needs attention anyway, and a real boost in both resources and status, along with an encouragement to raise outcomes in the way that many schools have achieved during past decade. There is also the danger that planning 14-18 without thinking about what goes before or comes afterwards for all young people is disruptive of Key Stage 3, and may require a huge expenditure on school buildings using cash that might better be used for other areas such as social housing projects.

Finally, I haven’t heard anyone mention the teachers that might be needed, and whether Lord Baker’s plans will be neutral in staffing terms? There are not enough highly qualified maths and science teachers to go around at present. If we increase demand, by teaching more science and technology, then the discipline of the market will be reflected in the price schools will have to pay. We are already at risk of not training enough mathematics, physics and computer science teachers, and it is important to know the effects of any shortfall on other schools if the vocational colleges are funded sufficiently well to take first pick of what teachers there are.

A new approach to 14-18 is definitely needed; whether more schools is the answer is open to debate. There might be better use of the resources. Bringing back 14-19 FE back into the DfE, and away from BiS might be a start.


Parents not Chains under future Labour?

There was quite a contrast between Ed Davey and Tristram Hunt on the BBC’s  Andrew Marr show this morning, and it went beyond just sartorial elegance. Ed Davey turned up in a jacket and tie to match the dress code of the show’s presenter whereas Mr Hunt was fashionably open-necked, with hair that was either an expert coiffure or just dishevelled, depending on your point of view.

Their mastery of the questioning also revealed a Minister who has been in post for a year and a shadow spokesperson with less than a week in the job. Tristram Hunt was tempted by Mr Marr into the higher education debate, despite it presumably not being within his brief. It was difficult to square his enthusiasm for polytechnics with his reluctance to expand higher education provision. How could polytechnics be created by Labour? One way would be to re-brand some existing universities, if they would agree. Another would be to re-grade some colleges of further education as polys. But, that would mean either depriving existing universities of places or increasing the number of degree places available, something Mr Hunt didn’t appear to think a good idea. Clearly, it is work in progress somewhere in the Labour team.

On schools, I welcome his attention to the need for qualified teachers, although he wasn’t pressed on what this might mean, except in the area of national pay where his answer didn’t reveal anything about Labour policy, just that most schools still follow the national norms: would Labour make them do so? Parent led free schools – why don’t we just call them academies and have done with the confusion – seems like a bit of a –U- turn in more ways than one. Brown Labour under Ed Balls favoured sponsored academies, and the formation of chains, so separate schools, but only where there is a need, suggests more primary schools but few secondary schools would be approved under Labour. So how would Mr Hunt get more of the UTC or Studio schools he extolled when talking about the JCB Academy, a school that is supported and named after the company run by the Tory peer. Such schools are unlikely to be founded by parents and, anyway, for the next few years we won’t need many new secondary schools, even if we need more vocational courses. Where local authorities fit into the picture, if indeed they do under Labour, wasn’t mentioned at all.

Primary education didn’t rate a mention either which was a shame given the importance of the sector. Overall, there didn’t seem much of a leftward drift, more a ‘don’t frighten the horses’ approach. The content of the recent OECD Report was batted away, although the subsequent discussion did seem to reveal that 16-18 education might feature in Labour’s thinking. Will they return the FE sector to the education department, or at least full responsibility for 16-19 education and training, now that the participation age has been raised? Both Labour and the Tories seem confused about where this sector of education policy should sit in government, and both might do well to study the Lib Dems detailed policy paper ‘Learning for Life’ that formed the basis for the conference motion passed in September 2013 at Glasgow.

Overall, the parent run academy approach isn’t startlingly new since Labour re-invented the academy principle of Westminster-funded schools despite having abolished the former Tory created Grant Maintained Schools after the 1997 election. What is new is who will be allowed to run them. Labour at Westminster seems happy to fund ‘private schools on the rates’. Whether it will appeal to the wider Party only time will tell.

Finally, as I have mentioned in a previous blog, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Report entitled ‘Half our Future’ that dealt with those pupils then largely being educated in secondary modern schools. As a historian Mr Hunt might have gained some kudos for recognising the importance of that report as well as the failure of the Atlee Government to properly implement both the technical schools and ‘county colleges’ of the 1944 Education Act.