Opting out is not the only answer

Andrew Baxter

How schools are organised must not distract from raising standards, says Andrew Baxter

The Government is to try even harder to promote grant-maintained status. In fact, compelling schools to opt out is studiously not ruled out. I would like to offer a few observations on this proposal. Doubtless I shall be accused of meddling in politics. I am not. I am plying the traditional trade of local government officers, giving professional advice to politicians and giving it in public.

My advice is not based on any predictable defence of the status quo or vested interest. Neither is it based on any ideological opposition to GM status. Last month I advised Bromley's education committee to encourage its remaining secondary schools to acquire GM status, because that is the right way forward in our particular (and admittedly unusual) circumstances. There is the nub of my advice. There is no single universally applicable right answer to questions about organisation and structure. At best we can hope for the most appropriate answer in a particular set of circumstances. Success in any joint endeavour depends on the skills of the participants, the resources at their disposal, their attitudes and motivation and, arguably least important, how they are organised.

Despite its flaws and the many technical difficulties to which it gave rise, the Government's education policy has the great strength of being based on an acceptance of the principle that judgments about the right organisational arrangement should be made on a very local basis.

Thus I do not believe that Parliament's intentions have been achieved in Bromley, for example, while failing in Suffolk or Sussex. The policy of choice has succeeded in all cases, giving expression to local preference in the way that local government was designed to do. It would only be if there was some unspoken agenda, for example, the emasculation of local education authorities, that the policy could be said to have failed in parts of the country.

Thus, in spite the increasing centralisation and homogenisation of public services, there is still significant local diversity. Hitherto the Government has rightly respected this on the question of GM status. It is a principle which should be protected.

My second observation derives from long and sometimes tough experience at managing change. It is important not to confuse organisational or structural change with substantive or qualitative change of the kind that actually makes a difference for service users, in our case pupils and students. The introduction of statutory delegation of functions and powers to governing bodies, for example, was relatively easily achieved if considered from the point of view of the technical and formal changes that were necessary. The full potential of local management, however, is still far from being realised. Many heads and governors still approach their responsibility for budgeting and staffing cautiously, planning on an incremental year-by-year basis, hesitating to explore (much less implement) radical new ways of using resources. Many others, of course, were raring to go and impatient for further delegation, removal of restriction and constraint. Some of these, of course, were the heads and governors of the first GM schools.

There has been some research (and a great deal of speculation) into the reasons for the differential rate of take-up of GM status. Certainly one of the key factors was the pre-existing level of commitment to local management and delegation among heads, governors and local authorities. So, let us not force the pace to the point where key players and, in particular, headteachers lose confidence in their own competence and ability. That has happened all too often.

There is obviously a group somewhere advising ministers that further delegation, the ability to borrow money and enjoy all sorts of management freedoms, particularly regarding admissions, is the way to tempt more schools into GM status.

Who is giving that advice? It sounds as if it might be coming from those who are already enjoying GM status and, of course, experiencing new frustrations such as the constraints applied by the Funding Agency for Schools and its capital programme. I am not at all sure that by making the future even more different from the present, the Government will make the GM option attractive for those who have reservations. A more productive way forward might be to push the boundaries of local management and delegation so there is an evolution from which all schools benefit progressively.

Finally, let us not lose sight of our main purpose. We are all committed to promoting higher standards of achievement and effectiveness in our schools. The great trap into which politicians, civil servants and local government officers so often fall is to confuse reorganisation and restructuring with improvement. Those of us who no longer (or who never did) work directly with children too easily persuade ourselves that we are contributing to the effectiveness of schools, higher standards and all that we strive for by changing the organisational context in which teachers work. Of course, sometimes this is necessary. If an organisation is dysfunctional it must be corrected. If it is inefficient or wasteful it must be improved. But if it is working, enjoying the support of users and participants, surely it is better to go on seeking improvements through challenge, encouragement and support rather than to divert attention to organisational issues.

Clearly many GM schools are providing high-quality education. However, to paraphrase the Secretary of State, there is so far no evidence that they are providing high-quality education because they are grant-maintained. The strong and self-confident management which in many cases led them into their new status is obviously an important factor. The significant and ill-justified injections of additional cash enjoyed by many of the GM schools usually (though by no means always) has a positive effect. It does not follow that GM status and the related organisational changes promote quality. Neither, of course, does it follow from the significant handful of failing or struggling GM schools that they are failing because they have opted out.

It is clear that the Government is serious in its objectives to raise standards and achievement. It would be a mistake to allow ourselves to be distracted from this vital enterprise by a return to argument and division about GM status. Opting out must not be allowed to become an end in itself. It is a useful option for some (perhaps, in due course, many) schools in the right circumstances. But there are many other organisational models. We should not lose faith in local choice and real diversity.

Andrew Baxter is director of education for Bromley

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