Parents will rate local schools, says Gordon Brown

Councils will be forced to improve secondary schools if parents are dissatisfied

Every parent in England will be asked to rate the schools in their area in mass surveys that will be used to force local authorities to overhaul their range of secondaries if parents are not satisfied, the prime minister, Gordon Brown, revealed today.

Under the plans, if parents are dissatisfied and too many are missing out on their first choice in the admissions process, councils will be forced to expand the number of places at the most popular schools, open new schools, or change the management of those that are struggling.

Brown promised schools a new era of freedom, admitting that the role of central government in the education system in England had become "overly large" and that good schools should have more autonomy. The current "multiplicity of targets" that schools have to meet are to be stripped away and replaced with an annual report card, issuing a grade for each institution and details about children's behaviour and academic and sporting achievements.

In a speech designed to refocus attention from debates about his leadership and towards the government's policies, he insisted that public spending on education had to remain high despite the growing public debt because, he said, the country needs new skills to build its way out of a recession. "The downturn is no time to slow down our investment in education, but rather to build more vigorously for the future," he said.

Speaking at Prendergast-Hilly Fields college, a secondary in south London, he said that a white paper being devised by the schools secretary, Ed Balls, and due to be published next month would set out how schools and teachers will be given more freedom, and how parents would get more of a say in their children's education. A new mechanism will be introduced to force local authorities to act if parents are dissatisfied with the range of schools on offer, and parents will be promised online reporting of their child's progress in secondaries by 2010 and primaries by 2012.

"We must be unapologetically hard-edged to intervene when schools consistently underperform, but not afraid to stand back and allow greater freedoms to innovate when there is success," he said.

Jim Knight, the schools minister, told the Guardian that parental surveys currently included in the Ofsted inspection process could be aggregated across local authorities to rate parental satisfaction, along with statistics on the success rates of parents getting their first-choice school. When the two measures fall below a threshold, local authorities would be forced to act. "We are saying there will be less direction from central government in exchange for more direction directly from parents."

Brown attacked Tory plans to introduce a Swedish-style market in education, where schools compete for pupils and are allowed to profit under a voucher system. He said it would result in empty seats in schools, and that they would compete for the most "educated and aspirational" parents, whose children would be easiest to teach. Other children would, meanwhile, be left behind.

He said: "A market free-for-all would fail because, as some schools go under slowly as competitors overtake them, children in those weaker schools would be left behind. A whole generation failed – waiting for the market to work."

Christine Blower, acting general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "Parents can look at, and analyse, Ofsted reports, and they can of course visit schools. Secondary schools are already subject to enough myth about how good or bad they are. The National Challenge, and often the local press, already paint an inaccurate picture about how a school is faring.

"This initiative for parents is simply another piece of populist spin."


Polly Curtis, education editor

The GuardianTramp

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