Whereas the Draft Manifesto for Health covered new ground in terms of broadening consumer choice and recognising the role of the third sector as part of an integrated health service strategy, am I the only person to feel distinctly short changed with the Draft Manifesto for Schools?
To be fair the Schools manifesto does announce long overdue proposals to reform league tables and the schools inspection regime. It also endeavours to give the initiative back to schools when dealing with disruptive pupils and exclusions. These will be welcomed across the sector. Proposals in terms of core curriculum and teacher quality that will gain support from parents but will upset many capable, non-academic teachers who risk being aliented or even excluded from the “noble profession” to which they could and do make a substantial contribution.
However the agenda on Academies goes nowhere far enough.
Academies represent a vexed agenda at the best of times – at least on how, and where, Academies are funded. Few people would argue that Academies, in the general sense of giving the best education possible to students that need it regardless of their background or financial means, are a “good thing”. Opening up Academy status to new schools set up by charities, parents, trusts, voluntary groups and co-operatives, and allowing existing schools to apply for Academy status, lays the foundations for independent and specialist educational institutions to contribute to the overall educational fabric.
However the funding and benefits framework for Academies is not considered at all; neither are the important questions of access and parental choice.
Choosing how to educate one’s children is a fundamental personal freedom, whether you consider faith framework, style of teaching or just the relative weight given to different areas of the curriculum. Parents generally want freedom to exercise choice in the kind of educational experience that their children enjoy. Academies have an important role to play in extending parental choice by increasing the supply of high quality education provided by a variety of different kinds of provider. But Academies are not the only means of achieving this.
Independent schools already cater for parental choice. Most (if not all) are established as charitable institutions and many have some form of endowment funding that means that they don’t need to recover 100% of their costs from fees. Some enjoy specialist status in areas such as music, drama and art. Nearly all of them offer scholarships or other forms of financial support so that able students who would benefit most from the specialist teaching they provide are not automatically excluded purely on financial grounds. Scholarships may be financed out of specialist funds, some external to the school, or by cross-subsidising from full price students’ fees (i.e. wealthy but less able students subsidise less wealthy but more able students).
What would have been welcome in the Schools manifesto would have been some overt recognition that the highest aims of Academies are already being addressed by the independent sector. They do not set out to be socially divisive, they set out to be educationally distinct and that is a noble cause. What is wrong with independent schools isn’t that they exist at all but simply that they are underfunded. They can only exist by charging fees and that excludes many of the most able students.
Creating a funding process whereby more able students from less wealthy backgrounds could enjoy access to indendent schools would allow indendent schools to become a more inclusive part of the overall educational agenda.
Hopefully there will be scope for dialogue and consultation around this aspect of the draft manifesto before and after the election. Maybe one outcome will be widespread commitment to the Academies programme by independent schools, either in their own right or as partners in new Academy trusts with other private bodies. However the key question here, as always, is funding.