The White Paper is a major policy initiative, strongly backed by the Prime Minister with a speech the day before publication and a four-page foreword to the document, as well as by the Secretary of State for Education and Skills herself. The Government's aspirations for the White Paper appear to be that the proposals it contains will act as a catalyst for significant, permanent improvement in the schools system. The question we ask is, will the improvement driven by the needs of pupils and by parental preference that the Government aspires to provide a better deal for all pupils, particularly the most disadvantaged?
Most of the proposals in the White paper are not new, so why have they caused so much concern? Much of that concern has centred on Trust schools. The emphasis on their independence has led some critics to conclude that Trust schools will bring about a fragmentation of the school system and a widening of social segregation.
There are a number of policy proposals which we welcome which have also been welcomed elsewhere: on behaviour management, with the promise of a new statutory right of teachers to discipline; on personalisation of learning; and on continuing professional development for teachers and headteachers.
The three key areas that we examined were: Trust schools; local authorities; and choice and admissions.
We have established that Trust schools are not a new concept; the Government has re-branded one type of foundation school and sought to promote it as the way forward for schools. Much more detail and clarity is needed on the process involved in becoming a Trust school. If the Government wants to allay fears about how Trust schools will operate, it needs to provide this detail and clarity as soon as possible.
We have made recommendations on admissions which will mean some of the core elements of the School Admissions Code of Practice will become mandatory, but we have also proposed a vigorous new role for local authorities and the Schools Commissioner in ensuring that all admissions authorities comply with the requirements of the Code. The important issue here will not be the number of admissions authorities but the context in which admissions decisions will be made.
We have concluded that the role of local authorities will be enhanced by these proposals rather than diminished, given that they will retain their provider role for so long as community schools remain in being. The commissioner role which the Government sets out for local authorities appears to consist of the traditional role of oversight of local requirements with some enhanced responsibilities over school standards, together with the co-ordinating role on Every Child matters. We make the further recommendation that local authorities and admissions forums should have a duty to monitor admissions arrangements in their area and to establish benchmarks for the social composition of school intakes.
We believe that the role of the Schools Commissioner in respect of Trust schools will be less vigorous than the White Paper envisages, consisting principally of advice and assistance, but we recommend that the Commissioner should also have responsibility for strategic oversight of the admission process and of the way in which schools discharge their wider social responsibilities on social segregation. The Schools Commissioner should report annually on these two issues.
Taken together, these recommendations on admissions and social composition, giving new duties to the Schools Commissioner, empowering local authorities and strengthening the Code of Practice with regulations provide the effective practical means to ensure that the Government's aspirations on fair access can be realised.
The Government sets great store by choice as a lever for change in the schools system. It proposes a number of initiatives to help those from less affluent social groups to operate choice more effectively; in particular, the introduction of choice advisers and extended free transport to school. If choice is going to play an increased role in determining the shape of the school system, then measures such as these to improve equity are necessary.
Funding for disadvantaged pupils
We recommend that the Government develops its proposal to provide extra funding to those areas with the lowest levels of prior attainment by pupils entering secondary school by seeking a means of providing extra funding for individual pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Trust schools have had a very high profile in the debate, but in the end the form of governance of a school is less significant in determining the attainment of its pupils than the nature of its pupil intake and the quality of teaching and leadership. Schools need to have a sound structure of governance and accountability, and this can take more than one form, but in the end it will be what happens in schools, whatever their designation, that will decide whether the attainment of disadvantaged children in our school system will be improved.