Look back with regret

Is local management dead? The era of the self-managing school and college operating in something akin to a competitive market certainly seems to be coming to an end. Ministers now talk of co-operation and sensible planning where they once talked of competition and consumer power. Baroness Blackstone, the Further and Higher Education Minister, this week (page 1) even called competition between sixth-form schools and further education "absurd" and claimed that the experience of the past 10 years showed "it does not work".

But schools and colleges should be under no illusions. What all this signals is not a return to the cosy professional consensus that ruled before 1988. The catalogue of measures lying behind the new rhetoric amounts to further inroads into institutional autonomy. Centralised control is tightening as we move from the Conservatives' attempts at laissez-faire to what increasingly looks like a command economy.

The ending of grant-maintained status would not in itself signal the complete demise of self-governance. But as governing bodies are already aware, they are no longer the principal agents of accountability in schools; that role has been assumed by the Office for Standards in Education. Whereas governors were once the embodiment of community interests and values in school, now, according to the White Paper, Excellence in Schools, their role is to be redefined. The interests and values of the community are to be subsumed in the centrally-determined aim of "raising standards". Achieving the Government's national education targets is the single management imperative.

Local authorities, like schools, will also be subject to OFSTED enforcement - not just of the nationalised standards of organisation and management practices described in the school inspection framework, but also the growing tendency towards prescribed pedagogy. The ambitious authors of the 1988 Education Reform Act only wanted to define the curriculum: the Blair Government seems increasingly to want to dictate how children should be taught.

Whether or not this is the best way to improve standards, it would be a brave headteacher who does not comply with OFSTED diktat if local authorities are now to have the power to override the governors and remove heads who do not perform or conform. And once acting in accordance with the wishes of a higher authority outweighs the idea of meeting pupils' needs in the ways best suited to a school's individual circumstances, delegation of management responsibility is essentially at an end.

Meanwhile, extra statutory duties make it inevitable that local authority spending will once again account for a larger slice of the schools budget, though the promised simpler and "fairer" (and more centralised) funding may mean authorities will have even less say in this than they do now. All of which leads to the question of what, if anything, will be left to be locally managed if schools are simply following policies and practices decided elsewhere?

No one should look back on the past 10 years with rose-tinted spectacles. But it may turn out to have been the brief flowering of a greater democratisation of education; a period in which those who pay for education were able - through the exercise of greater voice and choice - to influence its aims and outcomes, while those at the chalkface were given freedom to decide the best way to organise teaching within the resources available.

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