Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Conservative education policy

Michael Gove

Given the current political climate, and with an election on the horizon, interest in the Conservative and Liberal Democrat policies has been on the rise and ASCL has stepped up its meetings with shadow education ministers.

But what would a Tory government have in store for England's schools? Like the present government, the Conservatives claim that their major educational priorities are tackling under-achievement and narrowing the attainment gap.

Immediate measures, which the Conservatives say will improve behaviour and shift the balance of power to teachers, include getting rid of independent appeal panels for exclusions (a high risk strategy that may result in more cases being taken to court, ASCL believes) and holding parents to account by making home-school behaviour contracts legally enforceable.

They also plan to reform the inspection procedure to include a sliding scale between a school's perceived success and inspection, returning to more "rigorous" inspections for schools not performing well and to consult on no notice ("lightning") inspections. Perhaps surprisingly, a Conservative government under David Cameron may be accused of wanting to micro-manage schools. Proposals for primary schools include requiring reading to be taught through synthetic phonics and replacing Key Stage 1 tests with a standardised external reading test.

Proposals for secondary schools include, especially in the case of underperforming schools, requiring Ofsted to inspect on the degree to which schools have adopted 'best practices' such as a strict school uniform policy (blazer and tie), hour-long lunch breaks and a prefect/head boy/ girl system. They would also require all academic subjects to be set by ability.

Michael Gove, shadow minister for education (below), explains that 'successful' schools (ASCL will be watching to see how school accountability is measured) will earn the freedom to innovate and be able to choose the practices which reflect individual school ethos, but schools judged to be failing on standards will "lose their alibis for failure" and be required to justify not adopting the practices above.

Perhaps even more significant are the long-term, supply-side Conservative policies. These include the creation of 220,000 new school places, which they say is to satisfy parental demand for those who have lost on appeal for their first choice of school, and funding and legislating for a new wave of 'new academies'.

New academies would be non-selective and within the maintained system but independent of the local authority and would be given greater freedoms to innovate outside the national curriculum.

A Conservative government plans to build radically upon existing academy legislation to allow parents, charities, livery companies, philanthropists, school federations, not-for-profit trusts, co-operatives and other voluntary organisations to set up new schools in the state sector and access equivalent public funding.

They anticipate that new academies will typically be smaller than comparable existing schools to meet parental demand and to support better discipline, which, they claim, is likely to be worse in larger schools, an assertion that ASCL rejects. They also promise smaller schools. Local authorities with large schools judged to be unsuccessful, will need to consider dividing them into two or more smaller schools.

Other policies include a pupil premium (attaching directly to individual children) to encourage schools to admit pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, which is a move towards ASCL policy on fairer funding. They also advocate a careers adviser in every secondary school and college.

A Conservative government says it will continue with some of the diplomas: however the three 'academic' diplomas, in science, humanities and languages, are to be scrapped. There are also plans to devise new maths, science and modern languages curricula and to give British history a more central role, although details are yet to be seen.

While many school leaders will welcome the promise to restore freedom to innovate away from the National Curriculum, there seems to be a fundamental contradiction in philosophical approach with these policies running alongside plans to curtail freedoms, as in the requirements to set by ability, and to dictate the 'best practices' schools may be forced to adopt.

Anna Cole, ASCL parliamentary specialist

Further information

The next issue of Leader will examine Conservative policies and plans for the skills agenda.

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