Tag Archives: Schools

The Long-Term Threat from “Govern Now, Think Later” Politics

For a party that’s had thirteen years to plan its next government (or nearer eighty, in the case of the Lib Dems), this Tory-led administration is incredibly short-sighted. It has rushed headlong into a mass of reorganisations and restructurings which look very badly planned and certainly lacking in democratic mandate. Take the School Sports Partnership, a way of allowing schools to co-operate in providing competitive and social sporting activities for their pupils. Scrap it, said Michael Gove, let Heads decide how to run sports. A stream of Tories lined up to praise this new approach – “free the schools!”, they cried in unison. However, people who actually understand school sports made it clear that without properly funded local organisation, school sport was under threat as Heads were forced to prioritise their spending at a time of limited resources. Which to scrap – the sports and games, of those extra computers or even a new teacher? It’s fairly obvious where the axe would fall.

So Gove relents and performs a u-turn which is indicative of this government’s short-sightedness. Hours of discussion about a new approach to school sports and then a hurried about-face. What a waste of time, effort and resources. A little more thought, a bit more planning and this could have been avoided. It’s vital that Labour portray this u-turn for what it is – poor government, hasty management and wasteful ineptitude.

If it was only school sports which suffered from this “govern first, think later” approach, we perhaps could excuse the coalition. They’re new, after all. However, across the board, the Tory government is rushing through decisions without proper consultation and often against the wishes of those impacted most.

In the NHS, a hugely costly reorganisation has the support of only a minority of GPs, who are now being handed £80bn of commissioning budget. The change will cost around £3bn at a time of falling revenue for the Health Service (ignore the “ring-fenced budget” claims – experts say the NHS needs 3% increases p.a. to simply stand still. It’s getting 0.1%). So why do it? The only groups clamouring for an overall like this are the private health companies who are lining up to provide the commissioning services GPs won’t be able to. Report after report has warned of the risks of the dramatic overhaul in the NHS, particularly when money is tight. But Cameron and Andrew Lansley don’t care. They’ve made a decision and evidence be damned. The difference between this and School Sports Partnerships is that while some kids might get fat with the one change, people might die under the other.

Of course the government don’t want people to die, but the stampede to be the most radical minister in an unelected government is leading to rash decisions which will unquestionably have serious effects on people’s lives. There is a lack of evidence that this is at the forefront of any minister’s mind as he or she lines up the next dramatic shake-up of public services.

Finally we come to the big one. The economy. It’s stalling as the effects of Labour’s stimulus packages wear off. Unemployment is rising and the private sector is failing miserably to fill the gap left by public sector lay-offs, precisely as most serious commentators expected. The only jobs being created are part-time, which provide no security to people and often mean families rely on benefits to achieve a living income. Everything is focused on the deficit. The price of Osborne and Cameron’s blinkered obsession with cutting the public sector to somehow restore economic balance is record-breaking youth and women’s unemployment and, perversely, negligible economic growth.

The short-termism is frightening. Even if the Tories manage to eliminate the deficit in an entirely arbitrary four-year period, what will the consequences of their approach be? We will have a generation of young people trapped in unemployment. A lack of stable communities as people are forced to move around hunting for work. Increasing resentment from those who lose out towards those who seem impervious to the deficit-cutting measures. In short, a much worse country to live in.

For anyone searching for an alternative, look to the post-war period. Despite a deficit and debt which puts the current one in the shade, various post-war administrations managed to invest in huge housing and infrastructure projects and of course, the NHS. Boldness brought great rewards. It’s time for further boldness now. Government should be looking to the horizon and to our future, rather than the present. Of course we must increase efficiency wherever possible and provide the absolute best value for money in our public services, but relentless cuts will hollow out the foundations on which they rely. Once lost, local services will never be recovered.

We should be investing in a genuine green investment bank, with the power to raise funds and independently invest in new technology. Instead we have a fund of £1bn, considered entirely useless by all serious commentators. This country has a proud tradition of pioneering innovation, but short-sightedness from the Treasury is standing in the way of a potentially lucrative new industrial sector. If we don’t seize the initiative, others countries will. We need an active and engaged industrial policy which supports industry, encourages businesses to build links with communities through specialist skills and secure employment and sooner rather than later, the Treasury coffers will feel the benefit.

As for our young people, much better to invest in genuine work placements (such as offered by the now-scrapped Future Jobs Fund) than simply hand out benefits then kick people for not finding jobs which don’t exist. When recovery final does come, how does the country benefit from underskilled and unemployed people, out of touch with work? Pay for jobs and training now and reap the benefits in the future.

The thinking required is joined up. Connect each stage of people’s lives to the next. Attacking Sure Start and removing the element of universality will remove the community cohesion these centres currently provide. I have seen first hand how bringing families from across the community together improves the local area as people recognise they have more in common than they imagined. Turn our schools into a market place of special interest groups and the “sharp-elbowed middle class” and watch as these divisions widen further. I would scrap charitable status for private schools, ease the administrative burden on Heads and work towards a truly comprehensive system where every student has a fair chance, not just those in a position to exploit their time and influence.

Support the Educational Maintenance Allowance which keeps pupils in education and allows them the best chance to achieve. Fund universities properly – we will never be the factory of the world, but we could be its R&D department – in culture, academia and humanities as well as engineering and science. Offer proper alternatives to university too. We should support apprenticeships and training schemes which provide paid employment to young people embarking on a career.

And finally, recognise the importance of a life outside work. Community stability, confidence in the next pay packet, a feeling that work and community are not always separate can rebuild society where too often, poorly paid and part-time jobs for multinational companies leave people feeling undervalued. We shouldn’t be demonising those unable to work, but creating an environment where work is available, properly paid and secure. Then we can tackle the tiny minority who are over reliant on the state.

This comes from a recognition that a divided society is an unhappy society. As bankers waltz on, bonuses in hand, ordinary workers are suffering. A paltry, watered-down bank levy does nothing to ease the sense of unfairness that the economic crisis created. The country cannot tolerate further division between the haves and have-nots. We can’t return to the way things were before. Labour gambled on an asset boom and a drip-down from the financial sector. While the revenue this created rescued our public services, the wider picture was ignored. But what this means is more government spending, not less. But this time, we need to spend to invest in the long-term. Only then will we see a rebalanced economy with stable, fulfilling jobs for everyone. This will bring the deficit down as genuine, secure growth returns to our country. It creates a future full of hope for our children, rather than debt and despair and it shows that while innovation is to be rewarded, greed never should be.

This government shows no signs of looking to the future, only a panicky rush to make changes before public will make it impossible. They may be building for their own futures, but for the rest of us, the outlook is bleak.

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The Real Cost of Free Schools

The new Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, has made much today of the launch of Tory bills on education, designed to increase the number of academies (often sponsored by private companies) and open up the system to allow the establishment of so-called “free schools”, run by any local interest group, charity, parents or non-for-profit organisation. I said during the election that this policy was the most divisive and ill-conceived of the Conservative plans and am disappointed that it has survived the coalition discussions.

The “free school” system allows independent parent, church or other groups to set up a school and receive government funding to run it. The idea is to engage the local community more in the schooling of children. In principle, it sounds a good idea, but since it’s been copied from Sweden, it would seem pertinent to see what the chief inspector of Swedish schools thinks about the system. Per Thulberg, director general of the Swedish National Academy for Education said in February that the system “had not led to better results” and any improvements had been down to the social background of the children attending the free school.

Also, Sweden’s standing in international league tables has fallen in recent years and sits well below the UK in performance in maths and science, where results have been improving. The independent Trends In International Maths and Science Study (TIMMS), shows that Sweden is hardly the model to copy if we are aiming to improve standards.

So, it rather begs the question as to why the Tories want to introduce a system, the architects of which themselves assert to have failed. The cost implications are considerable, given that these schools are to be created in areas which already have adequate school places, so the system creates excess supply in order to introduce competition. However, as with much competition, the playing field is far from level. Free schools can set their own admissions criteria and by definition will be set up by groups that think they can make a profit, or by parents with plenty of time on their hands. Neither of these suggests that the additional resources required will be targeted at those pupils that need most support in deprived areas. So, while resources are incredibly tight, the Tories have decided that oversupply in areas which don’t require new schools is the best use of limited money.

Although there is a supposed protection against simple profit-making with restrictions on who can establish schools, every non-professional group will require the support of service providers to assist with everything from equipping the school, to hiring and even providing staff. Private groups are already touting their services to interested parent groups because they believe that they can take a slice of the estimated £2bn schools “market” in the UK. Some are looking at setting up not-for-profit offshoots to allow them to directly run schools and then sell services to themselves. This money, remember, is tax-payers’ money which will be used not for improving teaching or schools, but the shareholder profits of large corporations. I strongly recommend you read this article from the Guardian examining ways in which companies are planning to take advantage of the new plans.

Another sector of society which is being encouraged to establish schools is the religious community. I accept that some schools ostensibly run by churches can be excellent learning environments, but to encourage more explicitly religious schools, funded by the state, is categorically wrong. We already have a ridiculous system where parents pretend to be religious and attend church for months on end in order to get the priest’s signature on their school application. Who has the time for this? Usually the well-to-do middle class. I would completely remove religion from schools, apart from as part of RE and history classes. Schools should not be able to select on the basis of religious faith or faux-devotion of parents. It’s very obvious why these schools are popular – they are filled with the children of parents so committed to their child’s education that they pretend to believe in God for months to get them a place. It’s safe to assume these kids are growing up in a family environment with a strong focus on achieving at school. It is not for the government to promote religious belief through education – the place for that, if it exists, is the home or local community.

What we need is a more diverse social mix in schools, energy to ensure everyone has a chance to improve and not hiving off control over standards and curriculum to small groups with specialist interests and the time to devote to running a school. Education is a way to improve everyone’s life, not just those with parents willing to take control over it. As a society, education can be a unifying force, which helps improve social mobility, understanding and respect. The Tories seem keen to make it the preserve of a select group of parents with time on their hands, or even more worrying, private providers looking to make money. This does our children a great disservice.

I am in favour of less government bureaucracy in our schools and a genuine comprehensive education. People should not be able to use postcode mobility and the sudden discovery of God to privilege their children over others. We must strive to bring standards up across the board and only through educating children from all backgrounds together can we hope to ensure that our future is more equal, understanding and harmonious. Teaching to different ability levels in separate classes can be helpful, as can offering less academic subjects to certain children, which build on their strengths and retain the child in the education system. The danger is meddling too much in the detail and the government has been guilty of this. If we get the structure, investment and people right, then our education system can offer, as it should, a brighter future for every child.

Gove’s conviction-driven nonsense misses the absolute, fundamental issue here – what education system will serve our children best? While always playing up to the media, Gove and the Tories have already lost sight of what matters most. Not impressive Michael. Must try harder.

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