Education correspondent GENE BRODIE finds that the Tory education secretary is content to allow our local council to charge parents for teaching Croydon children to read and write
Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, has refused to intervene to prevent Tory-run Croydon Council from charging the parents of children in the borough thousands of pounds per year for what they are entitled to receive free-of-charge under the law: to be taught to read and write.
As Inside Croydon revealed last week, Croydon Council, as the local education authority, has been charging primary school-aged children for their remedial literacy lessons provided at the borough’s specialist centre based alongside Purley Oaks School.
Some parents in the borough are being told they have to pay more than £3,500 a year to the council for their children’s vitally important lessons. Croydon Council says that the charges are compulsory. If the fees are not paid, then the child does not get the lessons they need in the basics of reading and writing.
This “Pay to Learn” policy is being operated by Croydon despite the absolute ban on charging for education contained in the Education Act 1996.
Yet while Gove diverts hundreds of millions of pounds of public money to fund his experiment in “Free Schools”, the man tipped by some as a future leader of the Conservative Party is refusing to prevent a local education authority from charging fees for what it is obliged to provide for free.
Croydon Council justifies the charges because it has organised its remedial teaching lessons to be provided at a specialist centre in South Croydon, rather than at the pupils’ own schools. Parents of children involved have praised the standard of teaching provided, but have described the charging policy as “cynical expediency” by Croydon Council.
In a letter to one parent, Julie Belvir, Croydon’s Borough Solicitor, has tried to suggest that the specialist teaching provided by the centre is a “discretionary” service, rather than “compulsory education”.
“How can teaching a seven or eight-year-old child to read and write be ‘discretionary’?” concerned father Anthony Kennedy told Inside Croydon. “Without learning to read and write no child can make any progress in school. How can such teaching be seen as anything other than compulsory education?”
Kennedy wrote to Gove to complain about Croydon Council’s charging policy. He received this response: “I have read your letter carefully and acknowledge the points you make however the issues you raise are beyond the remit of the department.
“It may be helpful to explain that the role of this department is limited to setting the policy framework of the national curriculum of what is taught in terms of content, attainment targets and how performance is assessed and reported.
“All maintained schools are autonomous and the headteacher of the school is the person in charge of all school policies. It is for schools and teachers to decide how they choose to provide extra support for as [sic] they are best placed to recognise the individual learning needs of their pupils.”
Or subbed down (as so much of Gove’s pompous tosh often had to be when he worked as a hack for Rupert Murdoch’s Times newspaper): “Nuffink to do with me, Guv.”
“Surely, there can be nothing more fundamental to the setting of his ‘policy framework’ than the principle of free educational provision in the context of literacy teaching in particular?” Kennedy asks. “I am sure that parents all over the country would be interested in his views on this particular aspect of that policy framework.”
Kennedy’s complaint was made under Sections 496 and 497 of the Education Act 1996. Section 496 reads:
If the Secretary of State is satisfied (either on a complaint by any person or otherwise) that a body to which this section applies have acted or are proposing to act unreasonably with respect to the exercise of any power conferred or the performance of any duty imposed by or under this Act, he may give such directions as to the exercise of the power or the performance of the duty as appear to him to be expedient (and may do so despite any enactment which makes the exercise of the power or the performance of the duty contingent upon the opinion of the body).
The bodies to which this section applies are —
- any local education authority, and,
- the governing body of any community, foundation or voluntary school or any community or foundation special school.
“The test for intervention by him is one of unreasonableness rather than illegality,” Kennedy said.
“Manifestly a local education authority acts ‘unreasonably’ if it seeks to abandon the principle of free education and imposes charges for the education of children, in school hours. Manifestly, the Secretary of State has the power to intervene to prevent that if he wants to.
“Is it the case that Gove now considers schools and LEAs wholly free to decide when to charge parents for extra support?
“No amount of autonomy can override the absolute prohibition against charging contained in Section 451, or the principle of education, delivered free at the point of delivery, which underpins it. Nor can any such autonomy outweigh the duty of the Secretary of State to investigate when a complaint is made to him.”
Kennedy is deeply suspicious of Gove’s motivation for his inaction in Croydon. Local elections are coming up, after all, and an intervention in how Croydon runs its education services could be a massive embarrassment at this time for the Conservative-run council and for its Tory MPs, including Gavin Barwell, now a government whip but who was previously Parliamentary Private Secretary to… Michael Gove.
Kennedy is even more concerned by the possibility that Croydon is being used by Gove as the thin end of a education charges wedge. “The free-market ideals Gove preaches are a product of neo-liberal think tanks such as the Institute for Economic Affairs, the Taxpayers’ Alliance and the Adam Smith Institute. In their brave new world, we are all ‘consumers’. In that world all that is required is the provision of a ‘bog standard education’ to pre-teen consumers, and that to the extent any ‘extras’, such as remedial teaching, are provided are to be paid for by top-up fees levied on these consumers’ parents.”
Kennedy, who has a child who has attended the remedial literacy centre but who has not been charged any fees by their school – at least so far – says that the charges are a massive and growing concern among many of the parents he has met at the centre, and that some have been forced to stop their children taking the lessons because they cannot afford to pay.
“Gove’s silence screams of his approval of Croydon’s charging policy,” Kennedy said.
“What we are witnessing is the creeping privatisation of the State education system, something which has never been approved by Parliament.”
Coming to Croydon
- Coulsdon East local election hustings, May 19
- St Giles’ primary school open morning, May 21
- David Lean Cinema: The Rocket, May 22
- Songs From The Ledge, Spread Eagle Theatre, May 23
- Greek Myths: stories and mask-making, May 27
- Howard Marks: Scholar, Smuggler, Prisoner, Scribe, May 29
- David Lean Cinema: Dallas Buyers Club, May 29
- Tales from Ancient Greece, Upper Norwood Library, May 29
- Upper Norwood Library Book Club, May 31
- Stitch Pitch quilting workshop, Upper Norwood Library, June 2
- Croydon Tech City “summit”, June 6
- An Improvised Murder, Spread Eagle Theatre, June 7
- Lakes Playground Action Group fun day, June 14
- Elm Tree Cottage garden open day, June 15
- Norwood Society Talk: The Concrete Church, June 19
- Classic Car Show at Purley Rotary Fields, June 22
- Crystal Palace Overground Festival, June 26-29
- Warnings to the Curious, Spread Eagle Theatre, June 27
- South Norwood Allotments open day, June 28
- Fragile, Spread Eagle Theatre, July 24-26
- Elm Tree Cottage garden open day, Aug 10
- Norwood Society Talk: War Memorials, Sep 18
- Norwood Society Talk: From Fire Station to Theatre, Oct 16
- Norwood Society Talk: Lambeth’s Archives, Nov 20
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