Discussion of the UK Government’s Education White Paper, Higher Standards, Better Schools for All – More choice for parents and schools
The World Tonight
BBC Radio 4
Tuesday 25 th October 2005, at 10.00pm
Robin Lustig: Presenter, The World Tonight
Dr. Ian Gibson: Labour Party MP
Jacqui Smith: Schools Minister
Jonathan Shepherd: General Secretary,Independent Schools Council
Dr. Glenn Rikowski: School of Education, University of Northampton
It’s 10 o’clock. This is The World Tonight, with Robin Lustig. The government has published its long awaited Education White Paper, setting out its plans for sweeping reforms in secondary education. It wants independent schools to get more involved in state education, but why should they do something that might well lessen the demand for their services?
“There are Independent Schools as we have proved in the way in which we have developed partnerships anyway, who want to contribute. And if they can contribute to ensuring excellence for all our children, well they have a role to play.” (Unattributed quote: probably Jacqui Smith – Schools Minister)
[… Intervening news items …]
Robin Lustig : Yesterday, from the Prime Minister, the vision. Today, from the Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, the detail. The Government’s Education White Paper sets out an ambitious programme of reform. Weak schools will make way for strong ones, the best schools will be able to expand, new providers will be encouraged to enter the state system to give all parents the kind of choices which until now only the well off have been able to afford. Independent schools will find it easier to convert into state schools, says a briefing paper, if they operate a fair admissions policy and if they give up charging fees. But will private schools want to get involved in the state sector? Is that, in fact, what the Education Secretary means, when she talks about diversity of school providers? The back bench Labour MP, Ian Gibson.
Ian Gibson : Well, I think she means certain schools which will charge ahead, get their money, have parents controlling them, and, er, decide on their own curriculum, and I think she means there will be other schools who are somewhat behind who may or may not reach that same level of excellence. Now, I don’t think it naturally follows that because you make some schools, er, charge ahead that these other schools will follow. They will just sink. And that is the problem that, hopefully Ruth Kelly will eradicate. But, it’s not guaranteed. The mechanism: how that’s going to happen.
Robin Lustig: Suppose there is a good private school just up the road from a less good state school and that private school says we are prepared to play our part in improving the standards in the state school through some kind of trust set-up, would you not be happy to see that given a go?
Ian Gibson: Well, I’d be surprised if they did say that, but if they did say that, it would be quite interesting, because they would start to worry, you know, if they are helping the state schools out, you know, what efforts should they be making to establish higher levels in their own school? So, who knows how they will think. I can’t see Eton, you know, teachers are teaching, and the pupils they are teaching, charging around that area, helping the other schools; not to say that they are bad schools, but, but you know, they will be in an environment of what was said today in the debate, ‘not competition, but contestability’. Very hard to see what that might mean.
Robin Lustig: The Labour MP, Ian Gibson. So, who then are these new education providers that the government wants to get involved in running state schools? Well, the White Paper refers to educational charities, faith groups and parental community groups. But what about commercial providers? The so-called Edu-Business companies, which already run some local education authorities and have responsibility for education infrastructure. Could they soon be running state schools as a commercial venture? Jacqui Smith is the Minister for Schools.
Jacqui Smith : What is made clear with the trust model is that we think there are lessons to be learnt from Academies, from specialist schools about the contribution that external partners can make to helping to drive improvements in schools. We are thinking about charitable trusts set up, perhaps, with educational foundations, with successful schools setting up trusts so that they can share good practice with others. Community organisations, universities, trusts linked to business but strictly not for profit, and with the intention of actually driving improvements in the education system.
Robin Lustig: So, strictly not for profit. So, those companies which are in the field that is now known as Edu-Business, the people who build schools, manage education services and so on, as a commercial venture. They’re not included?
Jacqui Smith : This is not about private sector involvement in education. This is about schools being able to gain external support to improve standards. That is what it is about.
Robin Lustig: What about an independent school which is run by a trust or a charity of some kind and it says, we are rather good at running schools, we’ll set up a couple more, but we will put them in the state system?
Jacqui Smith: Well, what we might want to see there is that independent schools, as they are with some schools already, helping to contribute their expertise, helping to drive management and improvements in maintained schools. That’s the sort of model that we’ve got in mind. We’re learning from experience here. What we see from Academies, from specialist schools, is that where schools are actually able to enlist the support of external partners, it can help to drive standards for every child. And that’s what we are concerned about with these reforms.
Robin Lustig: What do you say, though, to those who might suspect that independent schools would be most reluctant to cut off their noses to spit their faces in this way, because the better the state sector, the less demand there will be for their private services?
Jacqui Smith: Well, Robin if you are asking me, is it an intention to make sure that the state sector is excellent, that parents feel able to choose places in the state sector, that parents don’t think they’ve got to go private in order to get good quality, well that is a fundamental objective of this White Paper. But I think that there are independent schools as we have proved in the way in which we have developed partnerships anyway, who want to contribute to that and if they can contribute to ensuring excellence for all our children, well they have a role to play.
Robin Lustig: As you know, there are those who suspect that what this is really all about is the beginning of a process which ends with the privatisation of secondary education.
Jacqui Smith: Well, they are wrong Robin. What it is about is making sure that every young person in school gets the tailored approach to their learning that’s necessary to enable them to make progress. That each school gets the support, the flexibility where necessary in order to continue driving up standards, that local authorities have a new but key role in actually ensuring quality across the system, and that we get the sort of excellence that we begin to see developing in our school system, worked through to every child and every school. That’s what it’s about.
Robin Lustig: The Schools Minister, Jacqui Smith. Well, with me here now in the studio is Glenn Rikowski, who lectures on education at the University of Northampton, and we are joined from Tunbridge Wells by Jonathan Shepherd, who is the General Secretary of the Independent Schools Council, which represents more than 1200 independent schools. Ehm, Jonathan Shepherd, Chapter 2 of the White Paper contains the words that the aim is to ‘create a school system shaped by parents, who will encourage existing schools to expand and federate to meet demand and make it easier for independent schools to enter the state system’. Independent schools don’t want to enter the state system, do they?
Jonathan Shepherd: I think we are talking about a very small number of schools, particularly newly established independent faith schools. I think if the whole of the independent sector entered the state system, the country could not afford it, because we save more than 2 billion pounds a year for the Treasury.
Robin Lustig: It also wouldn’t be in the interest of independent schools, would it, because the better the state schools become, the less demand there will be for them?
Jonathan Shepherd: I think that we are all very concerned about some things in the state sector, because in maths and sciences and languages the state sector is not producing enough suitably qualified applicants and we have a strong social purpose. I do represent 1200 schools, as you’ve said, and more than 1000 of those are charities. We are working in partnership with the maintained sector already. I think the trust model gives our schools a chance to get more involved, to make more of a contribution and I am very sure that a lot of schools would want to do that.
Robin Lustig: Glenn Rikowski, do you think that this approach will lead to better opportunities for more children, in English secondary education?
Glenn Rikowski: I think that is hard to say. What I think the approach will lead to, or is paving the way for, is what I would call the business takeover of schools. I think that’s clear in what it says about federations. And if you put that on top of say, the 2002 Education Act, when that enabled, the legislation enabled, schools to set themselves up as companies, to trade with other companies, to trade on the stock exchange, and so on, one can see the general drift in terms of how the system…
Robin Lustig: But you just heard Jacquie Smith deny categorically that anything other than non-for-profit companies would be included in this kind of system.
Glenn Rikowski: Well, in the White Paper, they do say, it is said that, the trusts that are going to be set up will be non-profit making. However, one might want to make a distinction between the trusts and the individual schools making profits, and the companies that are running them for profit.
Robin Lustig: Because some companies might set up trusts?
Glenn Rikowski: They might set up trusts, but that’s not the key point. The key point is that there are some local education authorities being run by companies, and some individual schools being run by companies on contract, and profits are made by providing the service at less than contract price, which impinges on staff pay, conditions, the type of labour that is used. You know, can you bring in cheaper labour and so on. It is those kinds of things that I would be concerned about.
Robin Lustig: Alright. Let me go back to Jonathan Shepherd then. Do you believe that what seems to be part of the thrust here in the White Paper, the idea that the boundaries between independent schools and state schools can be blurred, that there can be a greater mix of the system, so that somehow you get them coming together in some way. Is that a realistic vision?
Jonathan Shepherd: Very much so. The boundaries have been becoming increasingly blurred over the past few years, and there is much more cooperation, there is much more realisation on both sides, that we are all in the same business of trying to educate children. I think the government needs to get quite a lot further. It talks a lot in the White Paper about parental choice – that all parents should have the chance to put their child in the school that they want. What we do know, what is absolutely clear, is that a huge majority of parents would like to include independent schools in the choices available to them. You are not going to get genuine parental choice, unless you bring independent schools into the mix. We would be delighted to get children from the disadvantaged areas, who are in the worst position, into our schools. And if it was only 20 into each of our schools, that is 24,000 children who are saved, in fact, from what might be a very bad education.
Robin Lustig: OK – so Glenn Rikowski. If there is, then, an opportunity, once these kinds of ideas are put into practice, for parents to have more of a choice as to where their children go and perhaps if there is a particularly good independent school up the road, at least to partake in some of what that school offers, to everybody’s benefit?
Glenn Rikowski: Well, just to respond to the previous speaker. First of all it seems to me that the government has got the independent school sector over a barrel, in so far as it’s more or less saying to them – you form partnerships with state schools or you will lose your charitable status.
Jonathan Shepherd: I think that is not true at all, if I can come in there. We have no, I mean, I talk to the government very often, we have no indication at all, that there is anything like that, we are very confident about our charitable status. We have a social purpose that has existed for more than 100 years, in many cases much more than that. We want to be part of the solution to the problems in the educational sector.
Robin Lustig: But you, Glenn Rikowski, think that there is an implied threat, do you?
Glenn Rikowski: Yes, yes I do. It comes from a number of directions. One is the General Agreement on Trade in Services, which is a World Trade Organisation agreement. Two years ago I had a conversation with Stephen Timms, who was then, I believe, the School Minister, and he was saying, Glenn you need not worry about the General Agreement on Trade in Services, it does not apply to state schools. Now, if you have a situation where state schools and private schools are intermingling, however you want to put it, and working with each other, that opens the whole of the state system more fully to the General Agreement on Trade in Services, which is about transforming educational services into internationally tradable commodities.
Robin Lustig: Let me come back to you then, Jonathan Shepherd, coming back to where we started, where the White Paper says that one of the aims is to make it easier for independent schools to enter the state system, you think this will only apply in a very small minority of cases, you do not see this as the beginning of the end of a separate, independent education sector?
Jonathan Shepherd: Certainly I don’t. And one our strengths is being independent. We can actually get some independent ethos into some of the main schools.
Robin Lustig: But the government keeps talking about independent state schools now.
Jonathan Shepherd: Well, they are trying to make, they are trying to give them more independence, with one hand. I welcome that. I think one has to look quite carefully at the small print, because the local authorities are going to be changing admissions and funding. They have to abide by the National Curriculum and teachers pay, unless they negotiate their way out of that. There are these parents’ councils, where there will be a lot of regulation. So, I think the government needs to be a bit bolder, if it wants schools to be independent that’s fine. It can’t tie them back at the same time. And I think it is in danger of doing that.
Robin Lustig: Alright. Jonathan Shepherd from the Independent Schools Council. Glenn Rikowski from the University of Northampton. Thank you both very much.
And educational reform is the subject of our online listeners’ debate. We have already had several interesting contributions from you. But if you would like to share your ideas with your fellow World Tonight listeners, then go to the website at bbc.co.uk/worldtonight. Click on – join the debate.
Schools White Paper: Highlights – links to documents relating to the White Paper:
The White Paper – PDF and Word downloads from:
Press Release on the White Paper:
The Prime Minister’s Presentation on reforming the school system:
Parliamentary Speech: Secretary of State for Education, Ruth Kelly, presents the White Paper to Parliament:
The World Tonight
A biography of the presenter – Robin Lustig:
London , 29 th October 2005
The Flow of Ideas , the web site of Ruth and Glenn Rikowski, is at:
The Volumizer , the web log of Glenn Rikowski, is at:
Contact : Rikowskigr@aol.com
Transcribed by Ruth and Glenn Rikowski, 28-29 th October 2005