The English muddle

Ministers have got it wrong on the independence of city academies, argues Don Lillistone

* his comic work How to be an Alien in 1946, George Mikes wrote: "The British have always been a freedom-loving race and the freedom to create a muddle is one of their most ancient civic rights." I would change British to English as I have no reason to believe that the particular muddle to which I wish to draw attention exists outside England.

The foreword to the Department for Education and Skills publication, 16-19 Organisation and Inspection: A Consultation Document, states "the establishment of the Learning and Skills Council from April 2001 for the first time brought together responsibility for all post-16 education that has been sadly absent in the past". Unfortunately, it would appear that the statement is not strictly accurate.

The LSC will not fund either city technology colleges or city academies. When I raised this with the DFES, I was told that there is no contradiction here because city academies are independent schools and the LSC's remit does not extend to independent schools. This merits close examination.

City academies are described as "publicly funded independent schools". This is a use of language which clearly seeks to obfuscate the meaning. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the following definition of the word "independent": "(of broadcasting, a school, etc) not supported by public funds". But city academies will be dependent on public funds and, therefore, if the Queen's English is to be respected, cannot possibly be independent in the commonly understood sense of the word. I wish success to any city academy established in the future. It is, however, disappointing that an initiative is being introduced which undermines the LSC's remit just when the Government appeared to be willing to grasp the post-16 planning nettle.

Area-wide inspections by the Office for Standards in Education invariably draw the conclusion that, whether or not there is any gap in provision, there is an absence of planning or co-ordination of post-16 education. The LSC has the remit to reverse this planning blight, but why, then, introduce publicly funded institutions that will be outside their remit?

City academies are described in the DFES prospectus as "all-ability schools which cater for 11-16 or 11-18-year-olds, according to the pattern of local provision". However, this statement has only the status of guidance and it is clear that in certain circumstances it will be overridden and 11-18 city academies will be established in LEAs where there are currently only 11-16 schools with separate post-16 provision. In such cases, who has responsibility for strategic planning post-16? Not the LSC because city academies do not come under its remit and presumably not LEAs either as city academies are "independent".

The potential for muddle generated by the enigmatic notion of "publicly funded independent schools" will be of significance only in those parts of the country where such institutions are established. The lack of coherent strategic planning inherent in such a concept is, however, merely a further example of the fundamental problem with education in England as a whole.

I recently heard a DFES official refer to the fact that we are not like the "Napoleonic French" who determine their priorities and then plan logically how to achieve them. No, he assured his audience, our tradition is to develop our educational provision "by accretion". Sadly, he is absolutely right about how education has developed in England, but I fear that he did not see the irony in what he was saying.

It is precisely because there is no nationally coherent planning of education provision that we do not really have a national education service as such in this country. How could you begin to explain to a visitor from another country the plethora of different structures for education in England? An education professional from France could describe the structure of "l'education nationale" in a few pithy sentences. A treatise would be needed to encompass the range of publicly funded schools in England.

This vast range is positively promoted as "choice and diversity". Arguments for a more uniform pattern of provision, such as exists in many European countries, are dismissed as a "dull, one-size-fits-all" approach. But to what extent is choice anything more than an illusion? Real choice would be the unrealistic assumption of a place being available for every pupil in each of the different types of school. That could not be the case. You cannot choose to go to a selective school unless you live where there are selective schools, just as you cannot choose to go to a language college if you live in an area where there isn't one.

And how effective is post-16 education in countries which have more uniform provision, such as France? According to the Green Paper 14-19: Extending Opportunities, Raising Standards, a recent report found that, overall, the proportions of the workforce holding level 2 and level 3 qualifications in the UK are below those in France. The Green Paper also reproduces an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development chart showing France having a proportion of the population aged 17 enrolled in education above 90 per cent in comparison with a proportion of 75 per cent for the UK. Perhaps a "dull, one-size-fits-all" approach should be re-labelled as "consistent, coherent, rigorous and effective".

Do we really want education in England to continue to develop "by accretion"? I am not suggesting that we adopt the French approach to planning lock, stock and barrel, but I would suggest that there is clear evidence that such an approach is effective.

Don Lillistone is principal of St Mary's College, Middlesbrough

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