Adding to the confusion

8th August 1997 at 01:00
The fiendish complexity of our schooling system makes a nice lot of work for people like me. But looking at the Framework for the Organisation of Schools just published by the Department for Education and Employment I couldn't help thinking we are missing a wonderful opportunity to simplify it.

Our new Government inherited an organisational nightmare created piecemeal in the name of choice and parental influence. Do parents value having a theoretical choice between a grant-maintained technology school, community college and aided grammar school?

Yes, they do, but only if the name is a guarantee of the quality of education and experience they want for their child. But do they know, or care, who pays the cook, who owns the site, and who signs the staff's contracts? Shouldn't we distinguish between diversity in character and diversity in organisation?

The consultative document tries to answer two major questions arising from the White Paper principles. How can we safeguard the diversity of our schools and simultaneously raise standards for all children? How can we give effect to the commitment to increase parental influence?

The first question is indeed difficult. The 1944 Act left us a delicately balanced dual system whose rules on finance, admissions and governance bewilder visitors.

The complexity is the price most people gladly pay for something almost unique, namely the choice within a public system of an alternative school offering a dimension of religious faith.

The Government quite rightly will not upset that. But the 1988 Act multiplied the complexity by encouraging some 1,000 schools from both original categories to opt out, thus superimposing a third set of organisational differences on the first, adding some specialist schools with further variations.

I'm afraid the current proposals will create even more confusion. From a government which says standards matter more than structures it is disappointing.

It is suggested that the three new types of schools will be called "community", a new "aided" category capable of growth, and "foundation" (confusing to aided schools which have always had a foundation). In each of these categories will be schools with varying age ranges, and the cumulative complexities of finance, property, staff management and governance are horrifying. What if we only had primary, secondary and special schools, all following the national curriculum, all complying with national law, all fitting into the same programme to raise standards and all accountable to their communities?

Some would be Anglican or Roman Catholic, some teach in Welsh, some, if parents want it, practise meditation or vegetarianism. Major differences would be safeguarded in permanent legal instruments of some kind protected by the governors.

Do we need such major differences in management to encourage diversity of style and ethos? Especially when the Government is moving steadily towards consensus on funding levels, admission criteria and appeals procedures. Couldn't all schools own their property and employ their staff? Is there any virtue in aided schools still paying 15 per cent of the cost of outside maintenance? If we are serious about continuing their special character, shouldn't we safeguard it without expecting payment for it?

If this is too radical, why can't we just have two categories of school - "community" and "foundation" or "trustee", the latter having an associated trust deed enshrining their special faith or character and aims. The guarantees necessary to safeguard foundation status and associated diversity of ethos and emphasis would be embodied in law, while trustees would protect the school's special character day by day. The nuts and bolts of administration would be harmonised gradually to give a system intelligible to parents.

As for maximum influence for parents, yes please. But only if it's real. Putting up to three parents on education committees and more on governing bodies won't achieve this by itself. Extra representatives don't provide more representation. The strength is in the infrastructure of communications. Anything else could become tokenism.

Ask any parent governors what their main problem is. Most will say the lack of an effective means of consulting those they represent, one which is honoured and supported by management. Without such consultation there is no accountability.

Surely we need legal parents' forums from school to national level, not just to elect representatives but to ensure accountability from those they elect? Then it will begin to be real.

Joan Sallis is The TES's Agenda columnist and works extensively with local authorities on governors' issues.

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