BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 12.05.02

Interview: DAMIAN GREEN, Shadow Education Secretary

argues that offering the opportunity for schools to opt out of LEA control, for parents to set up new schools and for existing schools to expand, offers the way to improve standards, particularly for the less academic.

JOHN HUMPHRYS: Damian Green, things seem to be improving at certain levels anyway, the last thing surely that teachers need or want is another round of restructuring, will you leave things alone for a bit? DAMIAN GREEN: I think the last thing teachers need is to continue to have a Secretary of State in the Government that tries to tell them in great detail how to do their job. The purpose of the ideas I'm coming forward with this week are particularly to help those ..the bottom end of the educational heap if you like, those who are less academic, those who are most failed by the system. There have been some improvements in some schools. We had in your film, clearly a very good school there, what we too often find is that there are schools, particularly in our inner cities where the gap is widening between the best and the worst, where the most vulnerable children in our society are often being failed, where their parents feel they have no particular power over the education their children get and I think it's those parents in particular that I want to help. HUMPHRYS: But there seems to be a bit of a contradiction between you wanting or saying that you want to free up the schools and the teachers and yet at the same time, trying or saying that standards should be improved by setting central objectives, central directives even, making children learn a foreign language for instance, there is a contradiction there. GREEN: What I am saying is that some of the things that were done which were regarded as controversial at the time, like setting up Ofsted, like having regular testing, publishing results of those tests, were very good in terms of increasing schools accountability, the shone a light into our schools so that we could see which ones were working and which ones weren't. Now that tended to happen in the 1980s and the 1990s, what's happened since this Government came in is that they have left that there and I glad they've left that structure they inherited there, but they piled on top of it a micro management of schools, of lessons, of the curriculum, of the way teachers do their job. In the last twelve months for instance, the Department for Education sent out four and a half thousand pages worth of directives to every school in this country. Now, teachers can either teach or they can read Estelle Morris's great thoughts on how they should teach and what a lot of teachers are saying is that they would quite like some professional respect from Government. HUMPHRYS: All right, well let's see how you would give them more power in all sorts of different ways. Let's look first at the Local Educational Authorities, the LEAs, Iain Duncan Smith, your leader, has said, I quote "we should put our faith in local councillors. We will revive local government". Now, you can't do that if you feel as contemptuous or as dismissive of LEAs as some of your past pronouncement have suggested. I mean you regard them as wasting a lot of money, too much bureaucracy and all the rest of it. So are you going to give LEAs more power, or are you going to chop them off at the knees? GREEN: I've never said anything contemptuous ..... HUMPHRYS: Not you personally, no, no but your predecessors certainly have, been dismissive of LEAs. GREEN: What I am saying is that you should give schools the choice. What I want is to centre education policy on the school now if, as we saw again in your film, you have a good Local Education Authority, then I dare say head teachers, as that head teacher did, said fine, we can work with out LEA, they provide support services that we value. Where you have failing LEAs, as you do in Islington, in Hackney, in other areas of the country, then I want to give schools power to get out from under... HUMPHRYS: Ah ..opt out of the LEA control.. GREEN: The problem in the past has been either people have said, as some argued in that film, the Government must compulsorily scrape the LEAs and let every school go out on its own, or they've got the system you have now where schools have no choice at all. Now what I am saying is that it should be for the schools, it should be for the Heads and Governors and parents of the school to decide what's the best support mechanism for our school, do we want to stay with the LEA or..... HUMPHRYS: So if they say we want to get out from under the LEA and now please can we have all the money that would have gone to the LEA and then passed onto us, or some of it passed onto us, you're prepared to say. .if you want to get out of the LEA you can you can have all that money. GREEN: Well, with the caveat that obviously we're developing this policy. This is not the next election manifesto.. HUMPHRYS: ...but that's the principle that... GREEN: ...the principle is that I think schools should be the institutions that in the end have the power to decide in our education system, and as I say a lot of them will no doubt decide to stay with the LEA HUMPHRYS: Well some will decide to stay with the LEA of course, but the danger is that many of the very best will choose to leave the control. They'll have a degree of self confidence, they'll have good parent-governor bodies and all the rest of it and they will decide to leave the LEAS. You've then got a problem for parents who want to send their children to the best schools, you actually in the end are going to reduce their choice, that's the danger isn't it. So the power will not reside any longer with parents, which is what you wanted to do, the parents have the schools you said. GREEN: Well, I don't think that the power does reside with the parents now. I think that what..... HUMPHRYS: No, but at least an LEA can take the broad picture can't it. It can say this school should do this, know there is a degree of control, there is a degree of...the possibility at any rate of a good LEA being able to distribute the best facilities around its area. GREEN: But what the LEA can't do is create more places in the good school. The LEA is enjoined for instance to reduce any surplus places, i.e. if there are parents that want to go to a good school, that good school can't expand because that would create in the jargon, surplus places at the other schools they don't want to go to. So the current system actually takes choice away from parents and the place where this is particularly important often is in the inner cities, in those areas where you have disadvantaged parents who may well not have the money or clout to get their children somewhere else, either to move and go somewhere more leafy or to pay for it. And it is the extension of the choice that is available to a relatively small amount of parents that I want to extend to as many parents as possible. HUMPHRYS: But the point I'm making is that the danger is that the good schools will opt out leaving the LEAs to deal with the rest. GREEN: But what the good schools may well decide to do is expand or may well say, and the other half of my thesis on how to improve inner city education is (a) let the good schools expand, but (b) also make it much easier for new people to come in and set up schools, and it may well be consortia based on existing good schools who say, you like our school but it's full, well maybe a couple of miles away let's set up another school operating on similar lines so that if parents want to send their children to that type of school they can do so. HUMPHRYS: Who would set up this school. Would the parents themselves be able to get together and say we'd rather like a school and we know how we want it run You would enable them to do that?. GREEN: They could do, yes. Parents could do it, that's worked in some areas. There may well be teachers, groups of teachers who say, we've run this school in a good way, or we've worked together in a school, why don't we have the freedom to do it. HUMPHRYS: Where are they going to get the money from? GREEN: At the moment, no. I mean school places would be paid for by the state as they are now. It doesn't have any particular effect on the actual amount spent, it's the way you spend it at the moment in if you like the school system. We have a completely centrally planned system. Ever more power actually taken away from LEAs to the centre, but even within the system everything is topped down including who sets up schools, where they set up schools, what sort of schools they set up. What I'm saying is that if you actually give parents and the individual schools more input into this, you'll get a much more flexible and responsive system that will drive up standards, particularly in those areas where we most need to. HUMPHRYS: And you'd let anybody do it, I mean if, I don't know, the Moonies for instance said you know, we'd like to have our own school, or some crazy fundamentalist group decided that they wanted to have their own school. GREEN: Clearly, one of the functions of the Department for Education and indeed of Local Education Authorities, is to stop crazy people setting up schools. You wouldn't remove any of that responsibility, nor of course would you remove Ofsted. I mean any schools that were set up would still be inspected, would still have to publish their results, would still have to meet whatever demands the National Curriculum put on them. I'm not saying that you can set up a school and do what you like but I am saying that if you have more people setting up a school, you'll get better education and it's not... HUMPHRYS: Well, the trouble with that, we don't want to spend too long on this, but it doesn't stop people at the moment teaching children Creationism and all the rest of it, there are problems and there will be problems. GREEN: There's one school where I've heard the man who runs the school say actually, they talk about Creationism in religion not in science lessons. HUMPHRYS: We better not go down that road. GREEN: I think there's an important point and this is often regarded as some kind of ideological drift and people talk about America. Actually the place to go and look at this is Holland, where seventy per cent of children are not educated directly by the state but they are all state educated in our terms. Nobody is paying fees, but actually the state gives money to other bodies to set up schools. HUMPHRYS: The way to do it surely, if you are going to do that is vouchers, then parents really are empowered, they would be able to say we've got this money, we will use this money to do x, y and z. GREEN: Well I think that's a long way down the road, if ever, because what you first have to do is actually give the parents the opportunity of exercising the choice. If you started now, if you gave parents a voucher tomorrow, it would be like saying to somebody, here's your food stamp, oh by the way the only place you can go and shop is Sainsbury's, so even if you prefer Tesco's, you can't do that. HUMPHRYS: But you'd have a market? GREEN: Well you wouldn't actually, if you can only spend something in one place, what you haven't got is a market and also, I mean one of the..the only point where I rather differed from your film where the summary said what I was about was setting up a market, I think in the ten thousand word pamphlet I am publishing this week I don't use the word market. What I am actually about is trying to improve schools' standards and I think the way to do that is to give parents more choice and the sort of theories of markets are not directly relevant to this. I think what you need to do is say in practical terms, what would allow parents to exercise their choice and it seems to me, actually, allowing popular schools to expand, allowing new schools to be set up and also massively and radically improving the way we do vocational education and the way to do that. HUMPHRYS: Yeah, because what you said right at the beginning, was you are most concerned about the less able children and the people..children you aren't getting good education at the moment, not quite clear how that would help them. GREEN: Oh, I think it is because the areas where as I say the existing system is failing worse, is often in our inner cities, where they do tend obviously to be, if you like, a collection of disadvantage and one of the ways in which our system, relative to other European systems, most fails pupils is in the vocational field. You describe them as less able, which is interestingly.... HUMPHRYS: ...academically... GREEN: ...many of them will be very, very able and what I saw again in Holland, was thirteen year olds re-wiring a room for real, plastering a real brick wall. They were the less academic children, the type we often have big problems with, the fifty thousand truants a day we have, they were those type of children, (a) they were doing something that was relevant (b) they were good at it and therefore (c) they were turning up at school regularly and enjoying school. Now, that seems to me, quite a good vision for us to go for. HUMPHRYS: How much independence should schools have? Should they be able to choose which pupils they take, in your veiw? GREEN: I think they do effectively already. If you are a good school, then you quite often... HUMPHRYS: Do you approve of that? GREEN: Well, it's like approving or disapproving of the weather. If you run something good, then people will want to come to you, if you've only got a limited number of places, then you are going to have to pick somehow or other. Now you can either have it picked at random, you can have it picked by geography, you can have it picked by whether you have got brothers or sisters at the school, you can pick it by some form of ability at something or not, but in the end you are going to say yes to some and no to others. The only way - you'd never eliminate that problem - but the only way to mitigate that problem is actually to say, if this school is run in such a good way that it's got more demand than supply, then allow it to supply more. HUMPHRYS: Damian Green, many thanks.
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.