Select Committee on Education and Skills First Report

1  Introduction


4. The Labour Government took office in 1997 with education having been one of the main themes of its election campaign. Between 1997 and the general election of 2005 there were eight Acts of Parliament on education issues and numerous other initiatives and policy developments. The first of those Acts, the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, was directed at schools, and over the past eight years the drive to raise standards of achievement by children at school has probably been the principal educational aim of the Government.

5. In the primary sector the Government introduced the Literacy and Numeracy strategies, now absorbed into the Primary National Strategy which also gives support to modern foreign languages, PE and music.[3] In the secondary sector, it introduced the Key Stage 3 Strategy, designed to support learning for 11-14 year olds in all subjects, which has now been developed into the Secondary National Strategy. It also developed the Specialist Schools programme as a general school improvement initiative and adapted the CTC model to form Academies, designed to replace poor and failing schools in areas of low attainment in an attempt to bring a fresh approach to the quest to improve educational achievement. Across the schools sector as a whole, initiatives such as Education Action Zones and Excellence in Cities were designed to raise the aspirations and achievements of pupils in disadvantaged areas, not just in individuals schools, by providing extra funding and encouraging collaborative working. There was also extensive use of targets to try to increase attainment and the numbers of children reaching given levels of achievement across the system, as well as the use of national tests at the end of Key Stages 1, 2 and 3 to assess progress.

6. There has also been a significant increase in the amount of money spent on education by the Government. From 1998-99 to 2004-05, spending on schools rose from £21.545 billion to £32.510 billion, an increase of 50%, and real terms funding per pupil rose by over 30%.[4]

7. Attainment as measured by public examinations and national tests has risen over this period. The percentage of pupils achieving five or more A* to C grades at GCSE has risen from 46.3% in 1997-98 to 55.7% in 2004-05,[5] and the proportion of eleven year olds reading at the level expected of their age rose from 67% in 1997 to 83% in 2004.[6]

8. The Government says that there is more to do. The Prime Minster, in a speech on the eve of publication of Higher Standards, Better Schools for All, said:

"Go to your local school.  You can see the progress in the buildings, in the computers and the results.   But it is not good enough.  Not for Britain; not for the modern world.  Now I want us to lift our ambitions.  We will continue to put more money into our schools, and complete the reforms we began so that in time we have a system of independent, self-governing state schools, with fair funding and fair admissions, but driven above all by the needs of pupils, wishes of parents and the dynamism of our best teachers."[7]

9. He emphasises this sentiment in his foreword to the White Paper, saying that "our reform programme needs to go further if it is to be sustained within schools".[8] 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 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 and particularly the most disadvantaged?

Higher Standards, Better Schools for All

10. In announcing the White Paper in a statement to the House of Commons on 25 October,[9] the Secretary of State listed six reform priorities:

  • More personalised, tailored education for each pupil.
  • Giving greater independence to schools through the introduction of Trust schools, funded through local authorities but able to "partner and be supported by not-for-profit trusts" to bring "extra dynamism" to education.
  • Improving school choice by giving less affluent parents the means to make choice effective, and speeding up the turn around process for weak or failing schools.
  • Enabling parents to have a greater degree of involvement in their children's education, with better quality and regularity of information and advice and a requirement for governing bodies to have regard to parents' views.
  • Taking steps to improve behaviour, including the provision of a clear statutory right for teachers to discipline.
  • Giving local authorities a new role as "the commissioner of education, the champion of the pupil and the parent and the local strategic leader."

11. In the White Paper itself, Chapter 2, which introduces the concept of Trust schools, also talks about parental demand for new schools, the possibility of popular schools expanding to meet demand and federations being formed so that good practice at one school can be spread to others.

12. One of the most interesting things about the White Paper is how few of its proposals are actually new. Much of what is proposed was first published in the DfES Five Year Strategy for Children and Learners in July 2004.[10] Chapter 4 of that document, entitled 'Independent Specialist Schools', discusses the Government's plans for secondary schools. It specifically refers to the goal of those plans being 'More choice for parents and pupils', which is the subtitle of the current White Paper, along with 'independence for schools'. Paragraph 7 of Chapter 4 lists what are described as eight key reforms. Among these were proposals which have found their way into the White Paper:

  • "Freedom for all secondary schools to own their land and buildings, manage their assets, employ their staff, improve their governing bodies, and forge partnerships with outside sponsors and educational foundations.
  • More places in popular schools…
  • Foundation partnerships' enabling groups of schools to work together to do better for the children in their area.

"These…reforms will be underpinned by a transformed Local Authority role, with Authorities as the champions of pupils and parents."

However, there was no specific reference in this document to Trust schools.

13. Chapter 5 of the Five Year Strategy is entitled 'Personalisation and choice in the secondary years', and covers much of the same territory as Chapter 4 of the current White Paper. As well as discussing teaching and learning tailored for individual pupils, it also refers to proposals for improved behaviour management, better management of excluded pupils, improving attendance and a greater degree of involvement with parents.

14. These plans were outlined again in the Labour Party manifesto for the 2005 general election, with reference to independent specialist schools tailoring education to the needs of each pupil, and with "successful" schools having "the independence to take decisions about how to deploy resources and develop their provision".[11]

15. In each of these three documents, there is a strong emphasis on a framework of fair admissions, with explicit rejection of a return to selection by the eleven-plus exam.[12]

16. If these proposals are therefore, generally speaking, a re-statement of policy, why has there been so much concern expressed about them? It is important to draw a distinction between proposals which have generally been welcomed, and those which have not. Those that have been welcomed have been those which relate to what happens in schools; increased personalisation, improved in-service training for teachers and head teachers, clarification about discipline, proposals about the way in which excluded pupils are treated, as well as greater certainty over budgets. Those that have been criticised have been those which relate to structures; the introduction of Trust schools, with greater independence and control over their admissions policy; the role of the Schools Commissioner; the influence of commercial and other sponsors on schools; the change in the role of local authorities, including the proposal that no new community schools should be established; and the emphasis on parental choice in decisions on school provision.

17. The key issue here is one of clarity, or rather a lack of clarity. On reading the White Paper, there appears to be no difference between a Trust school and a foundation school in relation to the control they have over their own affairs. Why, then, is a distinction being drawn? Giving a new name to a type of school which apparently already exists has emphasised its independence from local authority control. This has led some critics to conclude that Trust schools will bring about a fragmentation of the school system and a widening of social segregation. This impression has been bolstered by open disagreements within Government about the proposals, including the concerns expressed publicly by the Deputy Prime Minister that the changes could produce a two-tier education system.[13]

18. We had hoped that when we took evidence from the Secretary of State at the end of our inquiry we would be able to bring some much needed clarity to this issue of Trust schools. We did clarify some issues, but much of the detail about Trust schools remains uncertain. Indeed, it is even unclear whether the term Trust school will endure, as the Secretary of State told us that there will be no separate statutorily-defined type of school called a Trust school.[14]

19. The Secretary of State disagreed strongly with the notion that Trust schools were the main "eye-catching initiative" of the White Paper and said that it was not the case that the other proposals in the White Paper depend on a large number of existing schools becoming Trust schools.[15] Yet the press notice issued on the day of publication put the proposals for Trust schools at the top of the list of initiatives contained in the White Paper,[16] and in his speech on 24 October the Prime Minister placed great emphasis on the reforms providing a logical and radical development of both the academy and specialist school models. We and others could therefore be forgiven for thinking that Trust schools are indeed at the heart of the Government's proposals for change. We deal with these issues in more detail in our chapter on Trust schools. However, we note that, by taking one type of foundation school and giving it a new name and a high profile, the Government has managed to make a cause célèbre out of something which already exists and for which no further legislation is apparently necessary.

20. As our inquiry progressed, and as the debate continued elsewhere in Parliament and outside, it became clear that there is genuine confusion about what the proposals mean, what they are intended to achieve and how they will work. Our aim in this report is to try to bring clarity: to assess the main proposals to see where more detail is required, concentrating on those issues which have given rise to the greatest concern. The Secretary of State told us that "This White Paper is all about driving up standards for the most disadvantaged children"[17] and we shall take this as the measure on which to judge the White Paper.

3 Back

4   Tony Travers note on 2005 public expenditure inquiry. Back

5   Departmental Report 2003, Department for Education and Skills, Cm 5902, London: TSO, Tables 10.1, and Statistical First Release 46/2005 GCSE and equivalent results for young people in England, 2004-05 (provisional), 20 October 2005. Back

6   Education and Skills Committee, Eighth Report, Session 2004-05, Teaching Children to Read, HC 121, para 10. Back

7   Speech at 10 Downing Street on 24 October 2005: Back

8   White Paper, page 3. Back

9   HC Deb, 25 October 2005, cols. 169 to 172. Back

10   DfES: Five Year Strategy for Children and Learners, Cm 6272, July 2004. Back

11   The Labour Party Manifesto 2005. page 33. Back

12   For example, Schools White Paper, page 41; Five Year Strategy, Chapter 4, paragraph 5; Manifesto, page 35. Back

13   Sunday Telegraph, 18 December 2005, page 4, Leader of the oppositionBack

14   Q 720 Back

15   Q 708 Back

16   DfES press notice 2005/0124, Education White Paper: Higher Standards, Better Schools for all, 25 October 2005. Back

17   Q 708 Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2006
Prepared 27 January 2006