From education to employment

Prime Minister States the Case for Helping People Back to Work and City Academy Project

The Prime Minister today launched a staunch defence of some of his education and employment innovations, defending the City Academies scheme and Pathways to Work in his monthly news conference from Number 10 Downing Street.

Mr. Blair and the government have come under sustained attack in recent weeks due to the perceived failure of the City Academies to meet the demands of the areas. In addition to the scandal surrounding the permission granted to a sex offender to teach in a school, and further revelations in that area, the Labour Party are facing a rebellion led by former Education Minister Estelle Morris and former Leader Neil Kinnock over the proposed Education White Paper.

Pathways to Work Working?

The Prime Minister took the opportunity to defend and praise the work of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) initiative entitled Pathways to Work which seeks to help those claiming disability benefit and / or incapacity benefit back to work. Mr. John Hutton MP, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, announced on Friday a pilot scheme involving Tesco Group in a cooperative venture.

Mr. Blair defended the work already undertaken by the DWP and Mr. Hutton, pointing out the improvement that this initiative represents. Prior to the launch of this system, moving from incapacity benefit to work was problematic, with what Mr. Blair described as certain “perverse incentives” for people to remain on benefit. This included the fear that they would lose their benefits the instant that they attempted to move into the workplace through either voluntary work or part time employment.

This is a fear that Pathways to Work seeks to address, with a supporting structure to bring more people back to employment or into employment. Fairness is a recurring motif, as Mr. Blair sees it: “Fairness. Fairness about helping people off incapacity benefit and into work.”

Education White Paper Necessary

In the face of recent stringent criticism of the White Paper of Education, particularly on the issues of selection and the City Academies programme, Mr. Blair took a strong position in defence of the proposals. He sees this as vital for the continuing improvement of the skills and standards of education for the nation, and pointed out that as much good work as has been done, a situation that sees some 40% of GCSE students failing to achieve five good GCSEs is far from ideal.

Mr. Blair also commented on the achievements of the City Academies in improving the performance of the areas they have been placed in, pointing out to the assembled reporters that they had replaced failing schools and thus had a great deal of underachievement to reverse. He stated that there has already been a substantial improvement; the average proportion of students in these Academies achieving five good GCSEs has risen to 35%, as opposed to an average of 21% in their preceding schools. He stated that parents are already “voting with their feet,” and that he expects this success to be built upon through the recommendations of the White Paper.

The Prime Minister has put on a brave performance, but this will not automatically mean the White Paper goes through. Politically speaking, the scenario that would see the Paper go through only with the support promised by the Leader of the Opposition and the former Conservative Shadow Education Secretary David Cameron MP can hardly be a palatable one. The days and weeks ahead will determine just how much of his former invincibility remains in his third term.

Jethro Marsh

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