Thursday, March 16, 2006

Brilliant and well deserving of the time the Speaker never gave him. Austin Mitchell reveals the best speech he never made.

"Thank you for allowing me to speak sat down - something which isn't necessitated by my socratic dialogue with the whips on this bill.

This isn`t a bill I can vote for. Indeed I voted against it when it first came in in 1987 as Kenneth Baker's Education Reform Act. That provided for choice, parent power, school opt outs and freedom from local education authority control. At the time Jack Straw called it an "obsessive vendetta aginst the rights of local commumities and their elected representatives to run their own schools and colleges in the way which suits their own areas best". His speech was so good I nearly gave it again today as my own but decided to leave plagiarism to the Department for Education.

The Bill is now much better than the White Paper and there are some good things in it like personalised tuition, school meals, better discipline, all sorts of things we'd have got anyway, but I can't vote for it.

This is a daft way of legislating. First a shabby White Paper filled with untested and unproved assertions, spelling mistakes, bad grammar and semi-literacy which indicates that the Department for Education could do with a little remedial teaching. Then the PM goes in for his technique of standing on a cliff (called Clause Four, Foundation Hospitals, 90 day detention, or Top Up Fees) and flings himself off, leaving the poor old Minister and the party to catch him. We always do because we love him so, though whether that will change now that there are so many Tory arms (a much better class of catcher) clamouring to do the job, I don't know. Then they bribe the grey men by conceding things which should never have been there in the first place and BINGO! Get your Second Reading and you've got your bill.

People tell me I should vote for it because it's all in the manifesto. It is: parent power, autonomy for schools, freedom from local bureaucracy and "choice drives up standards". Trouble is that's the Tory manifesto not ours.

This is a Tory bill, not Labour. I have to ask, what's in it for Grimsby? Not pushy parents in London but real people. The answer is not much. In my experience whatever benefits pushy parents and brighter, more academic kids doesn't help the working class, those with low aspirations or the underprivileged, all of whom need nurture not competition. Indeed doing everything for the bright and precious, little for the rest has been the basic problem of English education for years. Which is why we're in the mess we're in.

Which is also Grimsby's problem. Our difficulties with the bill are:

1. The gutless failure to scrap Eleven Plus selection in a bill which is supposed to be about stopping selection means that 120 or more kids a day will leave North East Lincolnshire, some in buses rather like Lenin's sealed train in 1917, to selective education in Lincolnshire. That's 120 able kids and 240 pushy parents taken out of NEL education. Indeed with the new impetus to choice that could rise. With the bus fares of poorer children being paid for six miles travel to the school of their choice, less well off kids in Irby, Beelsby, Hatcliffe, Aylesby and possibly parts of Laceby could get their fares paid by NEL ratepayers. Not a big number but still barmy.

2. Our secondary schools have been rapidly improving their performance. We're still below the national average but getting better. How will that be helped by competition? We'll probably have three academies (and I welcome that) but all will be competing with Toll Bar and Lindsey to improve their league ratings. The quickest way to do that is to recruit more able kids, not by selection but reputation and parental choice for glossy new schools. Which in turn takes ability away from the other schools and depresses their performance. To fight back they need more money, more staff, better teachers but all they'll get from this bill is faster closure. So for the Secretary of State to say this bill will do most for the underprivileged is just an exercise in spherical object production.

3. Trust schools. This is badly thought out as is shown by the fact that asked what schools were interested the DfE could produce only 25, one of which was Hereford, the school my kids went to, which had just made an enquiry rather as one might apply for a place in a holiday competition in Readers' Digest. The top school mentioned is Monkseaton whose Head, Paul Kelly, taught my son Jonathan media studies at Hereford, so I'm eternally grateful to him, but what he is really, and sensibly, asking for is an association with Microsoft, not for them to take over the school.

Trusts are really academy-lite or on the cheap. Academy founders have to put up £2 million. Many get honours as a reward. Trusts don't put up anything and may only get a balcony seat at the Labour Party Conference. They're regulated by the Schools Commissioner but he should be required to ensure first that power in the school is proportionate to contribution. They must avoid postcode preference with the upmarket trusts like Microsoft or the universities (though not Amstrad because no one's likely to want Alan Sugar now) going to the poshest areas. Trusts must be directed to under-privileged schools and areas if they're to be any use. There's no reason why they should be allowed to run schools or have a majority of governors. Only schools can run schools. Who they choose to help them and how is up to them.

4. Governors. I was a school governor thirty years ago. It was a doddle. Nod at what the Headmaster said. Smile and do as he wanted. Just like being on Labour's front bench. Since then more and more duties have been put on their shoulders. It demands more time and harder work. The job is too demanding for ordinary folk, and firms like Bird's Eye no longer pay their workers to do the job. So Governors must be paid, and by the local authority not out of school funds. Otherwise the only people we'll get - and it's particularly difficult to get governors at all in Grimsby - will be people with an axe to grind.

5. Under the bill the Local Education Authority has been given various strategic roles but no powers. The Government is relying on parent power. That doesn't help Grimsby where working class parents, indeed most parents, don't see it as their job to run schools. They're happy to leave that to the LEA, the Heads and the teachers. They trust them and indeed Labour LEAs have a good, proud record, particularly in spending more money than Tories. What the parents want is the assurance of a good school nearby, not choice, and certainly not running the schools themselves. So we need a clear, strong role for LEAs as the only body knowing local needs and problems. They need to define the catchment areas to get a good social mix in each school. Indeed, personally, I'd require those who want to opt for other areas to be picked by ballot. LEAs need to ensure that all schools of every type, including academies, take a fair and equal share of Special Education Needs and free dinner kids and have a common policy and performance on expulsions to avoid dumping problem kids in the way some academies have done.

I've written four letters to the Secretary of State making these points. Only one has been replied to. I've heard no arguments today to indicate that the bill can be improved to suit Grimsby's needs. In that situation it's my responsibility to vote against it."