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Policy Review: A steep learning curve

Fiona Millar reviews the Coalition Agreement's proposal for schools






Fiona Millar is a Guardian Education columnist and Co-founder of the Local Schools Network



The most striking feature of the Coalition Agreement on schools, two and a half years on, is not what has or hasn’t been achieved but what wasn’t included in the first place.

The document’s most high profile policy proposals – the establishment of free schools and a pupil premium for disadvantaged pupils – have been relatively low impact.

Fewer than 80 new schools have opened and many prospective founders are reporting difficulties with both the process and finding sites. The existing free schools appear to serve less disadvantaged intakes than are typical of their local communities so are unlikely to contribute significantly to the Coalition’s overarching aim of narrowing the gaps in educational inequality. 

For schools that do have high numbers of pupils eligible for free school meals, the pupil premium is an undoubted bonus. But according to Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw, the money is not yet being spent strategically enough and is in some cases being used, as he put it, to tarmac the playground or fix the roof.

Meanwhile the policies that have made, and are likely to continue to make, a widespread and sustained impact on our education system were not mentioned in the Agreement at all.

Around half of England’s secondary schools are now independent academies contracted to central Government. Many converted rapidly under powers given in an Academies Act that wasn’t included in the Coalition Agreement but was rushed through Parliament in its immediate aftermath.

The extra cash these schools were promised has cost the DfE £1bn more than expected according to the National Audit Office. Hundreds of primaries are now being forced down the academy path, raising the spectre of thousands of schools being answerable directly to the Secretary of State.

Data from the DfE and Ofsted suggests that the performance of academies is no better than that of similar schools in the maintained sector, but who will step in if those independent schools start to fail? Even the Labour Party, which introduced the idea of academies, is now consulting on what sort of ‘middle tier’ should replace now weakened and under resourced local authorities.

The current proposed reforms of the curriculum and secondary school qualifications, towards a narrow range of core academic subjects, were also absent from the Coalition Agreement and are proving controversial with heads from the private, maintained and academy sectors, as well as with the CBI and the creative industries.

The Government’s own regulatory body, Ofqual, has suggested change is taking place too quickly, leading to the suspicion that reform is being dictated by the political timetable rather than what is best for schools.

The Lib Dem election manifesto promised independent state schools accountable to local not central Government and the removal of political interference from the running of schools .The Tories didn’t win an overall majority. The Coalition Agreement has proved to be an incomplete road map for this Parliament and it could easily be argued that the Coalition lacks a democratic mandate for much of what is now taking place.
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