A tired old Tory story
It seemed like a striking phrase when I first saw it. In mid-September, in his speech at the City of London academy, the Prime Minister talked of embracing "the idea of genuinely independent non-fee-paying state schools".
He repeated it in his speech in Downing Street on the day before the white paper was published, and then there it was again at the end of his foreword to the white paper itself.
Every time I saw it I thought I had come across it before but I couldn't work out where or when. Then I had a new year clearout of an extremely voluminous file of documents about school choice. The headline of what was almost the last and oldest of these leapt out at me: "Towards Independent State Schools".
It was written by Stuart Sexton, the noted free marketeer who had been special adviser to two Conservative secretaries of state, Mark Carlisle and Sir Keith Joseph. It was the lead article in an unlikely publication, the Cambridge Institute of Education's newsletter of spring 1989, and was followed by a powerful rejoinder by one of the institute's tutors, Colleen McLaughlin.
Sexton's piece makes fascinating reading today. It starts with his prediction that within 10 years, perhaps even seven, "most schools in the state sector will be 'independent state schools'". The Conservative party's legislation between 1979 and 1987, culminating in the Education Reform Act and the establishment of grant-maintained schools and city technology colleges, was inspired by the party's philosophy on education - parental choice.
But this was only a staging post: they needed to go further so that state schools are "owned and managed independently from the state in the same way as existing independent schools are owned and managed independently, often by charitable trusts". The origins of the trust school notion perhaps? And focusing on another theme that is strongly reflected in parts of the recent white paper, Sexton attributes to the then Prime Minister, now Baroness Thatcher, the dictum that "state-funded education need not mean state-run education".
State-maintained schools, Sexton argued, should have the same freedoms as independent schools - with one exception. They should not have the freedom to charge for tuition, "because by general consent such should remain paid for indirectly, through taxation".
This limitation re-emerges in the Prime Minister's notion of "independent non-fee-paying state schools". Sexton is now director of the education unit of the Adam Smith Institute, which describes itself as "the UK's leading innovator of free-market policies".
He is now proposing that each school should have a budget based on its pupil numbers allocated by a funding agency and should not be controlled in any way either by the local authority or the Department for Education and Skills. Clearly, the white paper is not suggesting anything like that but it is still arguing for a big extension of school autonomy and the Conservatives are evidently prepared to follow the Government down this path, so long as they stick to it.
We need to be cautious about this political trend, though. There's no evidence that giving schools "independence" and "self-government" (a favourite term of the Major years, now resurrected) will promote - rather than frustrate - the policy objectives of higher standards for all and a better deal for the less advantaged.
Our state schools are already among the most autonomous in the developed world. Why should making them even more "independent" be thought to be in the wider public interest? The analogy of independent private schools won't work because two of the main attractions of these schools - very small classes and a self-selected intake - can't be applied to most state schools. And, crucially, the evidence shows that social segregation is higher in areas where many schools control their own admissions, a "freedom" the white paper seeks for all schools.
The white paper has many strong points, for instance the proposals on personalised learning, extended schooling and supporting children and parents. It also claims to want "a coherent approach to change and development across the system". Recycling free-market ideas about independence from a bygone age can only obstruct these radical plans.
Ron Glatter is a visiting professor in education at the Open University and the University of Warwick