Real parental choice could replace academic selection

Anybody in NI seriously interested in improving schools’ performance at the bottom end, should pay attention to the reforms for England, heralded by the Conservative education spokesman Michael Gove. First thing to note is that his ideas for a big expansion of self-governing academies and technical colleges share a good deal of common ground with Labour. So ignore the party heat over this; the main English parties are not too far apart. And secondly, note well that Gove spurns any suggestion of treating his reforms as code for a return to academic selection. “It’s the quality of teaching not the intake that counts,” he says. In his speech to the conference this morning he declares :“We will give parents control over the money which is spent on their children’s education. Parents will be able to take the five thousand pounds the state spends on their children to the school of their choice. And we will give the parents of poorer children more money.” NI’s almost universal state system delivers well for a sizeable majority but leaves a long tail lagging behind. Just how long I find it impossible to discover as the stats are not clear about this. If anybody can post a proper analysis of the comparative results of grammar and secondary schools and secondaries’ actual performance, it would be great to read it. The trend elsewhere is to break up the sort of bureaucratic monopoly that prevails in Northern Ireland. Beyond the State, we have the weakening grip of the churches and the integrated schools sector. Are there any community groups, businesses or lobbies out there able and willing to take up the Gove challenge and set up academies? Real parental choice by the schools is an obvious weapon for cutting the Gordian knot of the schools selection problem. Gove speech extracts below. POOR COMPREHENSIVE PERFORMANCE
This year more than half the children leaving comprehensives failed to get the basic requirement of five decent GCSE passes – and they were overwhelmingly children from poorer families.
This year there were hundreds of schools which entered no children for either A level history, or geography, or physics, or chemistry or biology – and the children in those schools were from poorer families.

POOR PRIMARY PERFORMANCE
The biggest failure of our education system is the failure to teach children the most important skill of all – the ability to read.
Every year more than 100,000 children – one in five – leave primary school unable to read properly.
Two thirds of working class boys at the age of fourteen have a reading age of seven or below.
One in five – after going through the school system – do not have the language skills to be able to find a plumber under P in the Yellow Pages.

PARENTAL CHOICE
Those children who cannot read are imprisoned in ignorance all their lives.
We will give parents control over the money which is spent on their children’s education. Parents will be able to take the five thousand pounds the state spends on their children to the school of their choice. And we will give the parents of poorer children more money.
Because nobody cares more about a child’s education than their parents. And no parents need our help more than the poorest.
state school could have the chance to free itself from bureaucratic control – and get the extra money, freedom and flexibility which schools like Mossbourne have used to dramatically lift standards.
Let me be clear – that means a fundamental change in the role of local authorities – instead of telling parents who’re unhappy with local schools to like it or lump it, local bureaucrats will be on notice to justify their position, their power and their performance. Because we need money where it makes a difference – not on a bureaucrat’s desk but in the classroom.
And because we want to ensure that the benefits of academy status are delivered most quickly where they’re most needed a Conservative Government will act on day one to help those children who’ve been let down most comprehensively.

REVIVE TECHNICAL SCHOOLS
We will create new technical schools in our major cities to ensure children who need it get the sort of hands-on, practical, vocational education you need in the world of work. These schools will be in the vanguard of providing what our economy desperately needs now – thousands more proper, real-world, apprenticeships.
And we won’t stop there.
We will – in our first hundred days – identify the very worst schools – the sink schools which have desperately failed their children – and put them in rapidly into the hands of heads with a proven track record of success.
We will remove the managements which have failed

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London