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Insecure amid the trappings of wealth

What do teachers in grant-maintained schools think of opting out? Researchers at Warwick University's Institute of Education found out. The Government's grant-maintained schools policy has been subject to considerable official, academic and political scrutiny, but there have been few attempts to discover how teachers perceive the effects of opting out on both their morale and work.

In November last year, the National Union of Teachers commissioned us to carry out a questionnaire survey of their representatives in grant-maintained schools. The survey provided data on 211 GM schools (165 secondary and 46 primary), which comprised approximately 20 per cent of all those opted out at the time.

The evidence we gathered is based on the perceptions of NUT members, so it is subject to the usual survey qualifications. None the less, we were struck by how far our overall findings reinforced those of other researchers. They also illuminate the anecdotal impressions of commentators who have followed the impact of opting out since it was first enacted as part of the 1988 Education Reform Act.

What, then, did our NUT respondents tell us?

More than half of them indicated it was the headteacher, often in alliance with a section of the governing body, who had first promoted the idea of seeking GM status for their schools.

At schools where this had happened, teachers' attitudes were significantly more resentful and morale relatively lower than in schools where it had not. This was possibly because the heads concerned were seen as pursuing their own private agendas.

On the other hand, in the rare cases where parents had been the prime-movers, attitudes were generally more enthusiastic. Enthusiasm for opting out was even greater where staff had supported the move as well.

One irony here is that the early advocates of opting out said it would increase parental power and choice and give greater control to the consumers of education. In practice, however, it appears that a number of headteachers have used GM status to reassert and reinforce their own control.

This consolidation of headteacher control is reflected in the perceptions of roughly four out of ten of the teachers in our survey who thought the style of management in their schools had become more "hierarchical" and "top down" since opting out.

Moreover, two-thirds of respondents said their schools were preoccupied with financial matters at the expense of educational considerations, although this appears to be a temporary feature.

Educational priorities were higher in GM schools which have been incorporated for more than two years, suggesting that, once the initial turmoil is over, schools return to their central aims. Indeed, time appears to influence teachers' attitudes to opting out, with increased approval detectable in GM schools open for more than two years.

It appears also that morale is better in the longer-established GM schools where there is a clearer sense of the material benefits of opting out such as the ability to hire more teachers and to improve the physical fabric of the school.

Our findings about why schools sought to obtain GM status indicated that more of the longer-established schools (that is, ones open for three years or more) had opted out to escape closure or reorganisation, while newer GM schools mentioned money more frequently. Thus, at different stages in the life of the policy, different motives for opting out predominated.

Our data enabled us to explore the perceived benefits and liabilities of opting out for a range of items within schools. These are illustrated in the table (above) and show differences in degree of improvement or deterioration.

Many of our findings are predictable, but there are one or two surprises. Not surprising is the fact that "buildings", "equipment", "services", and "support staff" are said to be either "much" or "slightly improved" in most of the schools. Worrying, however, is the high degree of "professional isolation" which teachers in GM schools said they experienced, and the fact that their "morale" and "job security" is less than expected.

Given the extra resources enjoyed by GM schools, we expected our respondents to report significant improvements in the teaching of children with special educational needs, but this was not the case.

We do not, however, know the priority their schools gave this work before opting out, and some comments obtained on a survey currently in progress suggest GM school resources may be concentrated on areas which most benefit their image.

There were some interesting differences reported between primary and secondary GM schools. For instance, more teachers in primaries reported improvements in career prospects, morale, access to support agencies, capacity to appoint specialist staff, non-contact time, class size and teacher-pupil ratio. The last three of these are widely seen as problems for primary and secondary schools and may illustrate the chalk-face pay-off from opting out for class teachers in primary schools.

Our survey found that positive feelings about opting out arose mainly from spending on tangibles such as buildings, equipment, services and support staff. Negative feelings arose mainly from the professional dimensions of teaching and involved lack of contact with colleagues in other schools, job insecurity and reduced career certainty.

In other words, feeling good in GM schools comes from the external, physical world of the institution within which staff work; feeling bad comes from the internal psychological world of the individual teacher.

GM schools will not be judged upon how good or bad their teachers feel about working in them, but upon whether they deliver better value for the extra money they receive. Early evidence from the Office for Standards in Education and the Chief Inspector of Schools suggests the performance of GM schools is in many ways no better or worse than that of locally-managed schools. Indeed, as reported in The TES last month, a growing number of GM schools are joining the list of those identified as failing to provide an adequate education.

If this trend continues over the next few years, it may be difficult for their teachers to continue feeling good about opting out.

The survey was carried out by David Halpin, Jim Campbell and Sean Neill of Warwick University.

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