Schools White Paper

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 12:31 pm on 24th November 2010.

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Photo of Andy Burnham Andy Burnham Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Election Co-ordinator) 12:31 pm, 24th November 2010

May I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his statement and for his courtesy in allowing me advance sight of the White Paper? It is just a shame that that happened 10 days after the Financial Times and the rest of the nation's media were given such advance sight, and that Parliament was the last to know. We were promised new politics, and it is time the Government lived up to their words.

I apply two clear tests to any education policy. First, will it help every school to be a good school? Secondly, will it help every child to be the best that they can be? While we welcome elements of this White Paper, I believe that it fails those fundamental tests. It is a plan for some children, not all children. The right hon. Gentleman will need to work hard to explain how his plan will not create a new generation of failing schools.

Let me say where I think the Secretary of State is moving in the right direction. We welcome the retention of a floor target for secondary schools and his apparent change of heart on the role of targets in raising standards-building on Labour's successful national challenge programme. We welcome the expansion of Teach First, which we championed in government. Labour's legacy, according to Ofsted, was

"the best generation of teachers ever".

We share his aim to have the best in the world. We also support anonymity for teachers who face accusations from pupils and some of his moves on discipline.

However, the Secretary of State's overall drive is towards a two-tier education system. I support his focus on maths, English and science, where take-up doubled since 2004, but by making the entire focus five academic subjects, is he encouraging schools to focus only on those children who have a chance of achieving that particular batch of GCSEs? Is not there a huge danger that he is cementing the divide between academic and vocational qualifications, which educational professionals have worked so hard to remove?

The risks of the Secretary of State's English baccalaureate becoming the gold standard by which schools are judged have been highlighted by the Institute for Public Policy Research, which states:

"Schools will have an incentive to focus extra resources on children likely to do well in those subjects, rather than on children receiving free school meals."

Is not there a real risk that his pupil premium will not be spent on the children for whom it is intended? At a time when we all need to focus more on the 50% of young people who do not plan to go to university, is it not the case that he has very little to say to them today? His message is that a vocational route is second best, and that is unacceptable.

Is there not a real danger that the combined effects of the Secretary of State's announcements today will be to create a new generation of failing schools? Is it not the case that some improving schools will see themselves plummet down the league tables, damaging morale and risking throwing progress into reverse? Many of those are the same schools that suffered from his decisions on Building Schools for the Future. What hope can he give them today of extra support to raise standards for all their children, both academic and vocational?

The Secretary of State wants to make it easier for schools to exclude children, but who will have the responsibility of helping schools to pick up the pieces? Why is he ending the independent appeals panel for exclusions, which ensures fairness across a local education community? He has rightly placed a strong emphasis on teacher training, but is he not at risk of ignoring the advice of his experts? Ofsted said yesterday:

"There was more outstanding initial teacher education delivered by higher education-led partnerships than by school-centred initial teacher training partnerships and employment-based routes."

Why, we might ask, is the right hon. Gentleman planning to end university-led teacher training for a schools-based model? Can he assure the House that that will not undermine the quality of teacher training and that it is not a move simply motivated by cutting costs? But is there not a much bigger contradiction? Today he lays down prescriptive standards for teaching training, but his message just days ago to free schools and academies was that they were free to employ unqualified teachers. Is he not mixing his messages and trying to have it both ways?

All this exposes a major flaw in the right hon. Gentleman's thinking, which is repeated throughout the White Paper. Today he talks a good game on standards; on any other day he says to schools that they will have the freedom not to follow them. Which is it? He sounds confused. That is because his real focus is on potentially damaging structural reforms and he is prioritising competition above collaboration in the schools system. His talk on standards is undermined by his ideological obsession with structures. In his rush to reform, he is making mistakes that will damage our education system. He seems not to have learned from the mayhem that he caused with Building Schools for the Future. At the most crucial moment for sport in this country's history, on the eve of a home Olympics, why is he abandoning a school sport system that the Australians have called "world-leading"? Does that not embody his approach to education: competitive sport for the elite and forget about the rest?

The right hon. Gentleman briefs newspapers that he will abandon the local authority role in school funding, but then tells the BBC the opposite. Did he rediscover localism last week, or did he cave in following a furious backlash from his friends in local government? Can he tell us today what role he envisages for local government over the long term? Will it have any powers of intervention in respect of free schools and academies? Is not his biggest mistake of all that he tells schools that their budgets are protected-thereby raising expectations-by continuing to mis-sell his pupil premium policy? It is a con: it is not additional, as the Prime Minister said today. Is it not the case that when schools receive their budgets in a couple of weeks, many in the most deprived areas will be the biggest losers and will simply not have the means to deliver on his fancy rhetoric today?

In conclusion, the right hon. Gentleman brings a lethal mix of incompetence and ideology to this crucial brief. Just because he believes in the teaching of history, it does not mean that he has to live in the past. He is in danger of bringing forward a plan for a fragmented and divided education system of winners and losers. He is in danger of creating a lost generation as a result of his elitist education system. He sits in his ivory tower, with nothing to say to young people who do not plan to go to university or whose hope is being cut by his Government-vocational studies downgraded; apprenticeships for young people frozen; the education maintenance allowance scrapped. He has a plan for some schools and some children, not for all schools and all children, and that is the fundamental flaw of his White Paper.