It is broadly agreed that much of the change arising from the 1988 Education Act, if not the manner of its introduction, has been beneficial. Opting out, however, still produces a largely polarised reaction.
Back in the summer (TES, July 1), John Wilkins, chairman of the Association of Heads of Grant-Maintained Schools, put in a plea for rationality from both sides, describing the protagonists at both extremes as "characterised by a degree of dogma and deliberate misrepresentation that brings little credit to the world of education".
Last week, a very wide range of delegates enjoyed a stimulating one-day conference reviewing aspects of the grant-maintained experience, and developments in thinking about the role of local education authorities.
"Useful lessons?" is the theme of a longer-term project being undertaken by Local Schools Information (LSI), the LEA-funded advisory body on GM status and opting out. Regional seminars will follow, enabling a more detailed discussion of the issues; it is clear that many are already eager to pursue matters further.
Further significant expansion of the opted-out sector now looks unlikely, and a general election which could bring an end to the experiment, and in which education might be an important issue, is only two years away. The Government is sounding more positive about the role of education authorities, but even the opposition parties are committed to reviewing that role, and to refining local management of schools.
There is still dissatisfaction with the overall performance of our school system, especially in relation to the nation's economic performance. Concern is growing about the distribution of educational resources, the variable access of the community to those resources, and the social consequences of such inequality. There is little confidence that anyone has all the solutions, but there is clear evidence of a new willingness to seek common ground in the search for improvements.
It has been a key part of LSI's function to try to ensure that questions are raised, as well as answered, when opting out is under consideration. So far, none of the following has been adequately answered: Is there sound evidence to support the existence of the beneficial changes claimed for opting out? How universal have they been? Are they truly changes arising from GM status, or are they also to be found in locally-managed schools? To what extent are changes dependent on additional resources? How much of the additional spending of GM schools arises from their own better use of resources, and how much from their favourable funding regime? What are the outcomes (if any) of different patterns of additional spending?
How has the role of headteachers changed, both in GM and LMS schools? Is there a significant difference between the two? Ditto governors.
Is good practice,and innovation, served or impaired by autonomy? Ditto their opposites. Which aspects of administration are more conveniently, effectively or economically performed at school level, and which on a broader basis?
What is the importance of the concept of "ownership"? Who should really have "ownership" of such a crucial national resource as our school service? How can "stakeholders" be adequately represented, and accountability to the tax-paying public be properly ensured?
How should the possibly beneficial effects of autonomous decisions for one school be balanced against their possibly damaging effects on another? Which aspects of the service require a strategic level of planning or administration, and which should be on a local or national basis?
How much is it legitimate to leave to individual initiative, or chance, and to what extent can we afford a school system run on ad hoc lines?
It is time to explore common ground, and differences, in a quest for a way forward which may bring not only more credit, but more gain to education.
Even for its advocates, the issue should not be the preservation of grant-maintained status as some kind of totem, but the maintenance of those aspects of it which have a genuine contribution to make towards the improvement of the school system as a whole.
Martin Rogers is co-ordinator of Local Schools Information.