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Alarm bells over school reforms

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A clear and an alarming picture is emerging of Conservative policy on school reforms.

Since David Cameron was elected as leader of the Conservative Party, we’ve seen a steady stream of headline-grabbing announcements as they set out their stall ahead of a likely election in 2010.

In their schools green paper earlier this year, they proposed allowing “educational charities, philanthropists, livery companies, existing school federations, not for profit trusts, co-operatives and groups of parents to set up new schools in the state sector”.

Shadow children’s secretary Michael Gove said in his speech to Conservative Party Conference a Tory government would allow just about anyone to provide new schools. This is on top of announcing plans to establish new academies with the same freedoms that grant maintained schools used to have.

My argument here is that these plans will splinter the family of schools within a local authority area to an unacceptable degree. There are good reasons why groups of parents, voluntary groups, churches and charities are not allowed to set up schools based on their own particular whim or preference. When Labour introduced trust schools we were clear they were part of the family of schools in a local area, and subject to the same accountability and funding regimes, curriculum and admissions procedures.

The Tories are providing a recipe for any group of parents dissatisfied with current provision to go ahead and pursue their own options, devising schools that appeal to them. At its most extreme, the Tory vision of parent power could risk controversial choices, where parents opt for exclusive or divisive schools, on the basis of religion or even social class.

In contrast, Labour has been setting out an ambitious programme for change in our Children’s Plan . Partnership with parents is a crucial aspect of this. We want to involve parents more in their children’s education not by fostering the conditions where they can opt out of the system but instead bringing them in more closely, with greater support in the transition from primary to secondary, information sessions at new schools, and every child having a personal tutor who is the main contact for parents.

We have also been clear about the role of local authorities in taking action to improve schools stepping in decisively where they might be failing, and challenging them where performance is not improving. Through my work in Salford, my own authority, and on the Children & Young People Board at the Local Government Association , I have seen how important it is for local government to play this key role in school improvement, as well as bringing together services in schools that meet the needs of young people.

Setting education free from local political influence will not help to raise standards. Indeed the evidence in Salford is that a partnership of all schools whatever their background can achieve huge gains in improving standards and delivering good schools.

Mr Gove explained that his plans were based on giving every parent the right to take the money currently allocated to their child’s education and then deploy it in accordance with their priorities, not the government’s. It is hard to see how this translates into anything other than a dangerous free-for-all. The LGA Conservative Group should use their influence with their front bench colleagues in Parliament to explain what role local government plays in education, and put a halt to these latest plans.

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