Green Paper: A dog’s dinner

Written by: Dr Bernard Trafford | Published:
Dr Bernard Trafford, head, Royal Grammar School, Newcastle

The prime minister’s Green Paper on education has proved very controversial. Dr Bernard Trafford tackles the four key tenets of the proposals

Now, there’s a title for a Green Paper: Schools that work for everyone. Personally, I can’t see it. What I’ve seen so far of this hastily unveiled plan resembles a dog’s dinner, a cobbling together of a few Tory obsessions plus a swipe at independent schools (no longer popular with the party) and a scam for getting something for nothing from universities.

Let’s take the four key points in turn. First, allowing new faith-based free schools to select up to 100 per cent of pupils based on their faith. Lest we fear the religious focus creating cultural or racial ghettos, we’re assured that schools will be required to include pupils from different backgrounds. How that will be achieved is unclear. Such loose wording could involve years of wrangling. How, for example, can a Church of England primary attract a good range of children from Indian or Pakistani backgrounds, who are more likely to be Sikh, Hindu or Muslim?

Next up, selection. Existing grammar schools will be permitted to expand and new selective schools to open: but they will be obliged always to help non-selective schools (and I guess the pupils they select would have gone to these very same schools).

This is bizarre. If we’re going to have selection, there must be provision for those who don’t pass that 11-plus exam: the alternatives must be excellent. Take a genuinely comprehensive, all-ability school system in an area: simply lob in a grammar; result, turmoil and injustice. To be sure, I run a selective school: but it’s independent, sitting outside the boat which this plan will rock.

Next comes the wheeze of allowing universities to charge higher fees only if they commit to sponsoring or setting up new schools. Now, universities are full of awfully brainy people, but what do they know about teaching five-year-olds to read in a deprived setting, where kids never see a book at home?

This is a scam! Government wants more schools: if universities commit resources (not necessarily academic: they could be administrative, legal, etc), they’ll allow the universities to charge higher fees. That’s blackmail in my book – or bribery anyway.

Finally, in order to “justify their charitable status”, government will require independent schools to support existing state schools. Most of us do anyway, not in a patronising way, but through useful and mutually beneficial joint working. This is just another stick with which to beat us.

Government also wants us to open new state schools. I feel as I do about asking universities to do the same: it would be presumptuous of me to tell the state school down the road how to get off the ground or to improve. In addition, we’re required to offer funded places to children whose families can’t afford to pay fees: we already do that, too.

Is this actually a vote of confidence from government? Have Theresa May and Justine Greening been listening to what we’ve been saying about all the good work we do! Because we do: consistently, widely, invariably. I doubt it. Tory politicians have taken against the independent sector. They love to cite all those “tax breaks” which they claim charitable status brings us, but which puzzle me.

Yes, my school pays only five per cent VAT on utilities bills: it pays no corporation tax and enjoys reduced business rate. In a good year this saves us some £300,000. Set against that the VAT we pay on supplies and services: £600,000. Government statements conveniently omit to mention this fact. Before complaining about our charitable status, people should get their facts right.

Political point-scoring, arm-twisting to get something for nothing, meaningless tokenism, and a recipe for chaos in the system – that’s the Green Paper.

  • Dr Bernard Trafford is head of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School and a former chairman of HMC. His views are personal. Follow him @bernardtrafford


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