Tory MPs call for U-turn on education as school places squeeze looms

Michael Gove said councils should seek sponsors for free schools if extra capacity was needed.
Michael Gove, when education secretary, said councils should seek sponsors for free schools if extra capacity was needed. Photograph: Dave Thompson/PA

Leading Tories are demanding change to government education policy and an easing of cuts, amid predictions that councils in Conservative-run heartlands will soon be unable to provide school places for all the children in their areas.

The growing concerns of Tory MPs and council leaders are being relayed to ministers by the Conservative-led Local Government Association, which is calling on the government to hand back powers to councils so that they can expand schools or open new ones. The alternative, it says, will be a crisis of provision across the country.

Such a move would require a major U-turn in government policy. In the last parliament Michael Gove, while education secretary, imposed restrictions on councils’ ability to force academies to expand, arguing that headteachers should be free to run their schools as they wished.

He also said that where new schools were needed, councils should seek sponsors for “free schools” – which are funded by central government but not run by the local education authority.

Last week, however, Cheryl Gillan, the MP for Chesham and Amersham, whose constituency is experiencing rapid housing growth, was one of several Tories to voice concerns in parliament. She said Buckinghamshire county council had warned that it could not “provide the key infrastructure that is required for new schools and additional places”.

She insisted that her main message was about the need for more funding, but made it clear that more flexibility was needed to ensure places could be created where they were needed. “I thought our policy was supposed to be all about responding to demand,” she said.

Other Tory MPs who voiced concerns about looming shortages of places in their areas were Steve Baker (Wycombe) and Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk and Malton). Nick Gibb, the schools minister, insisted that enough money was being provided to councils to ensure sufficient school places.

The shadow education secretary, Lucy Powell, said: “With such big rises in demand, the provision of new places needs proper planning and co-ordination. The government’s fixation with free schools as the only solution is stopping extra places being provided where they are needed. They should free up local authorities to open and expand good and outstanding schools as required. Otherwise we will continue to see many more children without any school place, and many, many more crammed into over-large class sizes and being put in unsuitable accommodation.”

One of the main criticisms of Gove’s “free school” programme has been that many of the more than 400 such schools established so far are not in areas of acute need, but where people wish to set up a new school.

The Local Government Association says that in areas of need, councils will often struggle to find people to sponsor “free schools” and believes that local councils are “uniquely situated” to manage demand.

Roy Perry, the Tory leader of Hampshire county council and chair of the LGA’s children and young people board, said councils had created 300,000 extra primary school places by expanding class sizes, converting non-classroom space and diverting money from vital school repair programmes, but now needed to be able to expand schools or establish new ones to meet demand.

“If they [schools] are not willing to expand, then powers to create new schools should be returned to local authorities themselves if they are unable to secure high-quality free school sponsors in their communities,” Perry said.

In its 2015 election manifesto, the Conservative party promised 500 new free schools by 2020, which they said would create 270,000 new school places. But Labour argues that there is no guarantee that they will be built in places where demand is highest.

To cater for 615,000 additional pupils expected by 2020, each of the 500 free schools would have to have an average of 1,230 pupils – when the median primary school size is between 200 and 300 pupils, whereas the median secondary school is between 900 and 1,000 pupils.

There are currently 304 free schools, with an additional 116 in the pipeline. According to the New Schools Network, a government-funded body, these 420 free schools will provide more than 235,000 places if they are full. Many of these schools have been significantly undersubscribed.

A department for education spokesman said: “Despite rising pupil numbers, 95 per cent of parents received an offer at one of their top three preferred schools last year and any suggestion to the contrary is nonsense.

“Instead of scaremongering, the LGA need to ensure they use the funds provided by Government to secure enough places. Councils are responsible for ensuring there are sufficient school places in their area, and we expect them to plan effectively and make good investment decisions.

“Where local authorities identify the need for a new school they are required by law to invite proposals for a new free school and then forward these to the Department to decide on the options. We would encourage councils to work with RSCs, using their combined local knowledge, to identify top sponsors for new schools in their area, and are confident there is sufficient quantity of quality sponsors to meet demand. We encourage all good academies to grow, to help give every child the world-class education they deserve.”


Textbooks are here to stay

Will advancing technology edge the trusty old text book out of the schoolroom? Avnita Bir, award-winning Principal of RN Podar School (Santacruz) shares her views

“Various kinds of books are used for reference and learning, but textbooks will be around for a while, as they spell out the curriculum and also provide some kind of structure to the syllabus for schools across boards. Right now, there is no curriculum laid down for schools. The National Curriculum Chamber prescribes the syllabus in a very broad manner and doesn’t have specifications. We get curriculums only for classes 10 and 12 from the board, not for other classes. In order to set a benchmark for rest of the students, it is essential to have textbooks to help decide what topics to teach. Textbooks set standards and norms for academics, and for students across the nation or the world for that matter. We certainly need a point of reference. A student, a teacher, an educationist, a school principal or any individual needs concrete guidance to know what constitutes the curriculum, what needs to be taught to the students, how much needs to be studied and so on.

Currently, all of this is decided by our school textbooks. Consequently, as long as there is a need to define the curriculum, we would need textbooks in schools. A lot of people are suggesting that we do away with textbooks altogether and use gadgets instead. But this would be very difficult to implement and I do not see it materialising anytime soon. The major shift in the future, would be that textbooks would not be the only source of reference and learning would not be limited to textbooks.

Additionally, textbooks won’t remain the way they are now (i.e. in the printed format). There is a huge possibility they could go online, become video books or even e-books. Nonetheless, even if their form changes, the textbook would still define the curriculum. In conclusion, I feel that gradually learning from reference books and online portals will be more openly adopted; but school textbooks will continue to remain sacred for a very long time.”


Rohith Vemula’s suicide: We need to change our attitude towards caste

There is an urgent need for a transparent investigation into the system that resulted in the unwarranted suspension of the Hyderabad University students and, consequently, the suicide of ‘a mother’s son’.

Rohith Vemula, Senthil Kumar, Ajay Chandra, Balamukund Bharti, Manish Kumar, Madari Venkatesh— the list of suicides by students of premier educational institutions in the country, as a result of alleged societal and institutional bullying and harassment, goes on. The vagaries of life in India dictate that instead of focusing on the core problem—the eradication of caste-based discrimination—we are consumed by the noise from a variety of other issues.

At one end, we have precious investigation resources consumed by the ridiculous question of whether Rohith was an ‘actual’ Dalit or had fraudulently obtained certification under SC/ST. The answer to this is in the latter having the obvious political benefit of collapsing the case against the numerous government players. This is reminiscent of the victim-blaming phenomenon that was seen earlier in the “Is the meat beef or mutton?” debate that is still eating (apologies for the pun) our police time. Then we are all witness to the state and national-level political buck-passing where bureaucratic letters are literally being waved around and theories expounded that parts of the suicide note were erased— a lot of paper, no information. Yet another angle is the communal filth on campus as the clashes between the opposing factions of ABVP and ASA simply cannot be whitewashed away, especially in the context of recorded accounts of SC/ST students being denied hostel places, academic bias and even discrimination in cases of sexual assaults.

Given the rather muddled background, there are two fundamental pillars in this current state of disharmony and tension. The first is the reservation system itself and the bizarre dichotomy of the political approach towards their obligations in this regard. The history of reservations, based on the caste system in India, has a complex path, from pre-Independence measures by certain provincial rulers to laws promulgated by the British to the most recent controversial adoption of the Mandal Commission findings by VP Singh in the 1990s. As recently as October 2015, the Supreme Court reiterated its call for an end to the current non-merit based reservation system as an ineffective measure of affirmative action. This direction by the judiciary of the country has been largely ignored for 23 years since it was first made as no government wishes to publicly take a stance and reform the system for fear of antagonising the significant SC/ST/OBC vote.

On the other hand, there is pure apathy to the harsh realities of how the common SC/ST/OBC members live and promises of inclusive development ring hollow. That the quota system in India is ineffective is largely accepted. Bizarre situations where powerful, wealthy and elite communities, headed by the likes of Hardik Patel, are now demanding access to the system once touted as the saviour of the untouchable class are more indictment of the same. The fact that there are ‘conversion’ mechanisms whereby people have chosen to belong to the SC/ST/OBC bracket to gain access to college places and jobs is not surprising in a country where MBA and other post grads comprise part of the 14,000 applicants for 300 odd sweeper posts. Such a situation leads naturally to resentment which further fuels casteism.

The second pillar is difficult to engage with for most people. That is because they must identify a change that is needed within themselves. Associating with a certain caste as a divisive label occurs in each thread of our societal fabric. The basic premise is that there is a caste hierarchy— Brahmin versus Shudras, Kshatriyas versus Vaishyas, even down to sub-caste level. Based on this we judge people as superior or inferior and restrict them from our marriages, our kitchens, our places of worship. It is a consequence of the barriers that we have created that there is the need for positive discrimination, which will always (no matter how efficiently executed) result in resentment when opportunities are scarce, especially in the areas of education and careers. A meme popular on social media sums up this situation with brevity “5 minutes after your birth, they decide your name, nationality, religion and sect, and you spend the rest of your life defending [or lauding] something you didn’t even choose.”

So what has to change? In the short term, there is an urgent need for a transparent investigation into the system that resulted in the unwarranted suspension of the Hyderabad University students and, consequently, the suicide of ‘a mother’s son’. It is highly unlikely that anything concrete will emerge from the lawsuits against the government ministers. The focus should shift from blame games to positive, practical outcomes for those afflicted, sending a strong message of support to the victims and dissuading individual and institutional perpetrators at large. Enforcement of disciplinary and penal action is the need of the hour to restore faith in the system, faith which has been brutally rocked by the continuing ineptitude of the response teams. It is imperative that the state is seen as compassionate through the release of the funds owed to Rohith so that his family’s suffering is eased.

In the longer term, a complete overhaul of the quota system that looks beyond simply reserving college and job seats to actual integration of people is essential. There are many examples of reservation systems that go beyond quotas and create meritorious foundations with sufficient room to encourage diversity, from access to education and workplaces all the way through to building a sustainable cultural change. We should collectively look at these systems. While caste-based reservation is unique to India, many other countries have affirmative action legislation designed to build equality. Examples include New Zealand’s ongoing treaty settlement process with the indigenous Maoris and Norway’s 40% quota for women in corporate boardrooms.

At the end of the day, the only change we want to see is that we build a meritocracy that has equal access and opportunity at every stage for everyone, irrespective of caste. In order to achieve that, we need to change our language, our behaviour and demand that our systems do the same.


Get the Ultimate Design & Animation training bundle – now at 98% off

Ultimate Design and Animation Bundle

Creativity demands nurturing…and digital creativity demands a whole heaping load of heavily specialized nurturing. Whether you’re interested in web esthetics and design or even computer animation, there are a host of critical programs, platforms and techniques you’ve absolutely got to learn.

So if you’re looking to become an artistic web professional, start with this fully-loaded Ultimate Design and Animation bundle of courses, now only $29 in the TechnoBuffalo Deals Store.

This package from online education leaders eduCBA gives you lifetime access to more than 60 courses that’ll run you through everything you need to know about computer-aided design (CAD), animation, engineering — everything!

Added bonus: you can get certified in a full suite of CAD, Adobe, MAYA, engineering and animation courses.  Under the Adobe banner, you’ll have access to training in CorelDraw, Flash, Photoshop, InDesign, Audition and more.

If 3D animation and modeling is your thing, sample from a motherlode of MAYA instruction – stuff like 3D Design, Bouncing Ball, Character Animation and Shave & Hair Cut training. Or specialize in other digital animation disciplines like ZBrush, Unity 5, Cinema 4D, Nuke or Mudbox. No matter where you want to focus your attention, this bundle’s got option after option to load you up with the exact training you need.

Grab more than 200 hours of instruction with this all-inclusive package, now a ridiculously low 98% off its regular price.