BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 12.05.02

Film: Terry Dignan reports on the developing Conservative education policy which aims to improve standards by increasing choice for parents and choices for pupils.

HUMPHRYS: The government admits that our secondary schools aren't as good as they should be - particularly for less academic children. The Tories say they think they know what's wrong: too little choice of schools and too little freedom for schools to be different. The Shadow Education Secretary, Damian Green, is producing a pamphlet on it this week and I'll be talking to him, after this report from Terry Dignan. TERRY DIGNAN: The pupils of Uplands Community College in East Sussex may not know it but politicians are keeping a watchful eye on their progress. Labour is still striving to improve standards. Now the Conservatives are looking for ways to do even better. Twenty-five years ago a Labour Prime Minister, James Callaghan, called for a great debate on education. He got his wish and by the time the next Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair, had come to power, a consensus had emerged between Labour and Conservatives that government intervention in our schools was essential to raise standards. Which has left the Conservatives with a dilemma. Do they now try to be distinctive and promise to free schools from all government diktats or use vouchers to boost parental choice? Or do they keep to a consensus and narrow their differences with Labour to issues like vocational training? When last in power, the Tories, worried about standards, imposed a National Curriculum on schools and made SATs, Standard Assessment Tests, compulsory. They ordered test and GCSE results to be published so parents could choose schools using League Tables. Tony Blair adopted these ideas and a Numeracy Hour and Literacy Hour in every primary school. The Conservatives are now debating how to extend parental choice, improve standards and interfere less. ANDREW TURNER MP: Well it would be attractive to parents because it would enable schools to do what they thought was in the interests of their pupils rather than being trammeled by too much direction from the centre, whether that centre is County Hall or Whitehall. GILLIAN SHEPHARD MP: I think that a government has a responsibility to put in place the parameters within which the education system works. Therefore, you have a view about standards which are tested, you have a view about the curriculum which is set in place. DIGNAN: When the Principal of Uplands entered teaching, schools were under less pressure from government. ACTUALITY You're doing four AS Levels - you're doing five - many are doing five this year. DIGNAN; Since when the number of government directives and instructions has increased out of all recognition. But the pros and cons of direct government intervention have divided policymakers, politicians and professionals. DAVID JAMES: Well there's no doubt at all that central government has pumped, primed huge initiatives over the last ten to twelve years and there's equally no doubt that standards in education have improved very considerably as a result. TURNER: We've introduced changes, they have introduced changes which have elevated the importance of standards, but I do think we have to be slightly modest in saying we, who in my case was last in a class room in 1984, know how teachers should teach. That's not something on which I would say politicians ought to have an opinion. SHEPHARD: The Literacy Hour and Numeracy Hour had their birth in my time as Secretary of State and I believed and continue to believe, that there was a lot of confusion in teachers' minds about the best way to teach literacy, reading, writing, and arithmetic and mathematics, and the Literacy Hour and the Numeracy Hour again remove that uncertainty, they give a lot of training, they give a lot of certainty, about how best to achieve good results. And I think both the Literacy Hour and the Numeracy Hour have worked extremely well. ACTUALITY: OK. well, I'd like somebody to come and show us 123 times 45 on the grid. DIGNAN: Labour Ministers have extended the Numeracy and literacy strategy to secondary schoolchildren. But Shadow Education Minister, Damian Green, says teachers are demoralised by all these initiatives. Wales has scrapped tests for seven year olds and along with Northern Ireland, League Tables. At Uplands, staffing problems are blamed on teachers' salaries, not excessive government intervention. But Labour, too, now says good schools will be less regulated despite professional praise for many government initiatives. JAMES: We've seen as a result of the government intervention and government initiatives, a huge improvement in the standards that are being achieved by primary schools, as a result of the numeracy and literacy initiatives and we've been impressed by that to the point that the Literacy Hour at primary schools, we've taken forward and established a learning, a language for learning hour here in students' first year here. Very impressed by the quality of the materials that have come in through from government about literacy and numeracy and using it, and this is a direct result of government intervention in indicating where schools should be going. ACTUALITY DIGNAN: The Tories argue that the drive to increase standards in schools should be driven by market pressures, not government initiatives. They believe parents, not politicians or civil servants are the best judges of whether a school and its teachers are up to scratch. Left to their own devices good schools, like this one, will continue to fill their classrooms. Those which under perform will have empty places. TURNER: We've won that argument to a great extent and now I think parents are more able than they were, because of choice, because of the opportunity to choose which school their children go to, to a great extent, not untrammelled, they are more able to appreciate what a school has on offer, and to make a rational decision about which school they want their child to attend. DIGNAN: Rupert Simmons runs the Conservative county's Llocal Education Authority - LEA. His powers are limited because successive governments have devolved control of LEA budgets to Heads and Governors, a policy which accords with demands for schools to run their own affairs. Yet while a former schools' chief inspector wants to go much further, Conservatives are now calling for stronger LEAs. COUNCILLOR RUPERT SIMMONS: I think it has a role in challenging - I have a responsibility for a hundred and ninety-seven schools, across the whole county - a role to challenge the standards, to try and facilitate the raising of those standards. CHRIS WOODHEAD: I mean the logic of the argument to me is crystal clear. That tax payers' money ought to go in to schools, it ought to be used to pay teachers, to buy text books and so on and so forth, and every penny that is withheld from the school, we've got to have a damn good reason for withholding it. I think the schools should have the resource and the schools should have complete freedom to purchase whatever service it wants from whomsoever it wants. DIGNAN: When Iain Duncan Smith campaigned to be party leader, he argued that parents should have more choice over where they send their children to school. He wanted to offer parents vouchers - or credits. Each voucher would be equal to the value of a state education but could be used to defray the cost of a place at a private school. It's now unclear where the Conservatives stand on vouchers because Damian Green is arguing for a less radical option. He wants to extend parental choice by creating schools which specialise in a vocational education. If you wanted your child to join these pupils, you could try moving into the school's catchment area. Less well off families, though, may not be able to afford this. So would vouchers make it easier for them to gain admission? Over-subscribed schools might have to expand overnight, leaving the less popular to decline even further. The views of sceptics are echoed by a former Tory minister who experimented with the idea. SHEPHARD: I think I'm right in saying that I'm the only former minister who has direct practical experience of running a voucher system, because in the last days of the Major Government, when I was Secretary of State, we had a pilot scheme of vouchers for nursery schools. There is no doubt that this scheme empowered parents. They had the voucher, they could spend it where they wished and it also encouraged the setting up of a lot of private nurseries and the provision of more choice. However, the system was unwieldy to administer and costly to administer. JAMES: Parents know what's best for their children and they should be given, they should be given the freedom to choose where they would like to send their children. The issue is really space in schools for them to be able to do that. And if you looked at our situation at Uplands for example, last year there were over a hundred more applications than there were places available and there's the danger of creating a lot of distress, when, if parents feel they've been given opportunities they don't really have. DIGNAN: But those who yearn for the hustle and bustle of the marketplace believe vouchers are the logical next step, once schools are free from ministerial interference and no longer beholden to councils for any of their funding. WOODHEAD: We've got a small, relatively small number of schools, very popular schools, over subscribed, it's the school that selects the pupil, rather than the pupil that selects the school. So the challenge for the whole system is how do we develop more, better schools, how does the market become more consumer orientated so that parents do have a choice as to which school, particularly which secondary school, they send their children. TURNER: The advantage of such a system would be that there would be a mechanism by which the parents could exercise, which, obviously subject to the places being available, gave them more choice and the second advantage would be that the money would flow to the people who are running the schools, so they would be able to afford to expand successful schools, or even set up new schools. ACTUALITY: DIGNAN; Uplands is no ordinary comprehensive. It's a specialist technology school. Damian Green wants more faith schools too, and, for the less academically able, vocational schools. Parents could then use vouchers to exploit this extra choice. In contrast, Labour will allow students here to attend vocational courses at local colleges two days a week. There are Conservatives too who would prefer this to separating children into the academic and vocational. SHEPHARD I wouldn't be particularly in favour of having a wholesale reorganisation dividing schools into, and this is the implication of your point, vocational schools and academic schools. People point to France, it hasn't worked, there is not parity of esteem whatever anybody tells you. The also-rans and the failures are poked off into lycee technique, and their parents tell you so. I mean that doesn't work. DIGNAN: Exam time. The academically able here achieve results way above the national average. So why shouldn't they have their own school, too? WOODHEAD: Let's accept the logic of the argument. If we're going to have more schools for the non academically inclined child, then we ought to have more schools for the academic child. DIGNAN: The Tories have a vision of a market in education which will offer greater choice. Ministers wouldn't interfere, teachers would decide how to teach. It's a distinctive policy but it may have to overcome parents' fears that markets create winners and losers.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.