In October 2005 the government published its latest White Paper on education which promised to extend parental choice and release schools from LEA control, enabling the development of a system of independent self-governing state schools.  The National Union of Teachers (NUT) response was less than positive, suggesting that the White Paper contained ‘wholly unnecessary and damaging structural reforms’.  In particular the NUT was uncomfortable with the White Paper’s agenda for choice, which it suggested ‘appears not only to ignore the root causes of social disadvantage, but also appears wilfully to propose measures which will exacerbate the educational effects of social disadvantage through encouraging segregation’.  According to the NUT the Government’s proposed approach for enabling choice was both unclear and could lead to chaos, benefiting neither parents, nor school communities and simply fuelling the competitiveness of an internal market. 

While the NUT recognise that school choice reforms can lead to an increasing willingness by teachers and local authorities to listen to parents, they suggest that such reforms are not necessary in the UK because there are already plenty of mechanisms available to enable this to happen including elected parent governors, parent/teacher associations, and the range of opportunities for parent/teacher contact which schools already employ.  In any case the NUT suggest that increasing parent power is likely to accentuate social division and highlight that there is no evidence that the majority of parents seek or desire these powers.  They also proudly state that head teachers ‘have previously realised educationally sound change, such as the inclusion agenda, sometimes in the face of opposition from parents, who can be concerned only for their own children’!

Concerning the other issues in the White Paper, the NUT believes that school performance tables should be dropped and schools should not have the ability to vary teachers’ pay and conditions. The one year guillotine for failing schools presents an absurdly rigid approach to school improvement, and the proposal requiring schools to give information on progress to parents at least three times a year is viewed as an unnecessary bureaucratic requirement creating additional and unnecessary workload for teachers.

The NUT’s criticisms of the White Paper are also shared by other trade unions including the Secondary Heads Association (SHA).  According to the SHA, school leaders prefer to collaborate than compete, and there is nothing in the White Paper to provide any incentive to collaborate.  Instead several elements risk a return to damaging competition, such as the proposals for new schools to be open to new providers, which puts at risk the ‘coherence of school provision’.   The SHA ‘strongly opposes the white paper proposal for termly reports to parents on pupil progress’, and ‘rejects the proposal to place on governing bodies a statutory duty to have regard to the views of parents’, because they also need to have regard to the views of teachers, students and the local community.    The SHA also rejects the rhetoric of parental choice which raises expectations that cannot be satisfied. ‘Parent power is not likely to help, nor is it what most parents actually want’.

The issue of choice in education was addressed in the NUT’s 2004 publication ‘Bringing Down the Barriers’, which recognises education as a fundamental human right, and suggests that for this right to be fulfilled, ‘education must be a public service, inspired by the values and ethos of public service and publicly provided’.  In this same document the NUT also demand a halt to the role of the private sector in education, and instead recommend that the Government should develop policies which encourage local authorities to combine to provide support for other local authorities. 

Such comments lie in stark contrast to the responses to the White Paper from the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) and the CBI.  According to BCC President, Bill Midgley, a ‘greater injection of the business ethos into our education system is very much needed and we support moves by the Government to allow businesses to become more involved in the running of schools’. Sir Digby Jones, Director-General of the CBI, also recommends that the ‘contribution business makes to improving state education should go beyond the purely philanthropic. Specialist education companies brought in by the state sector have demonstrated striking success in helping pupils overcome their basic skills challenges and in turning round failing LEAs’. In a veiled attack on the NUT, Sir Digby Jones concludes by suggesting that ‘It is a great pity if ideological opposition has held back good ideas to involve business that could have further improved opportunities for young people’.

The NUT’s mission is clear and unequivocal.  The government monopoly in education must be protected at all costs.  However much we agree or disagree with this statement the NUT has proved to be one of the most successful and influential pressure groups in British politics over the last century.  The pathetic state of education in the UK today is all the proof you need.

All quotes taken from: Initial comment from other organizations on the Education White Paper, Higher Standards, Better Schools for All – 25th to 26th October 2005

An edited version of this article was originally published in Economic Affairs, December 2006