Beware rot about the foundations

24th October 1997 at 01:00
Peter Coles scans the structural element of the White Paper and decides that it will never stand up.

David Willetts, Conservative MP for Havant, is known locally for his ability and for his frankness. One widely publicised post-election quote was that he knew his party had got it wrong when, on the doorstep, he was told continually: "No, I couldn't vote for you, I'm (or my sondaughterwife is) a teacher. "

When schools, local education authority offices and support and resource centres opened on May 2, there were huge expectations in the education service. These came not from any traditional leftward bias nor from expectations of an easier life. People in education anticipated greater appreciation of the challenges they face and a commitment to providing public services for the whole community. Those expectations and hopes are now threatened because consultation on the White Paper, Excellence in Schools, has brought real concern about whether the Government will listen to the many rather than the few.

For 20 years I have worked with senior local politicians of all kinds, with chief officers across the country and with many senior civil servants. I believe strongly in local management of schools, a national curriculum, the Office for Standards in Education and the publication of data and reports. Far from being a recent convert on these matters, I was an early evangelist. For nine years I have served an LEA which is proud of the achievements of its teachers and determined to support and challenge them, and which believes that everybody can improve.

Since 1986 the education service nationally has been moved to the kind of explicit accountability which must accompany high political priority. The new Government wanted to build on that. In Excellence in Schools, it made policy statements which gave the White Paper the right to be compared with the Hadow Reports of 1926 and 1931 and the agenda they set for a generation. I fear that if the structures debate is not settled satisfactorily, that ambition will be frustrated.

Ministers are being briefed on responses to the White Paper, but I hope they will consider carefully those critical of the proposals on structure. Chapter seven was always going to be the focus of fundamental disagreement. The content and handling of the Department for Education and Employment's technical paper on school organisation, which came out after the White Paper with the same deadline given for responses, further aggravated the problem. To that must be added suspicions of officials whose previous work with the grant-maintained sector might make them over-protective of those minority interests.

During the past four years, 95 per cent of governing bodies have voted annually against becoming grant-maintained. That is a very large majority. Yet, instead of proposing the simple return of GM schools, to become community or voluntary schools, the White Paper extends the notion of foundation schools which was launched in a 1995 internal Labour policy document and ran into rough water within the party. That notion did not, however, appear in Labour's manifesto. No one has argued convincingly that the establishment of a system as complex as the tripartite (or nine- or 27-fold) proposal in the technical paper will settle things down. On the contrary, the diversion has just begun.

Assumptions that the "return" of GM schools to LEAs would reinsert local political and administrative control, slow down management, inhibit initiative and reduce standards are insulting to the powers and inclinations of central as well as local government.

It is ludicrous to suggest that we would return to an era of municipal meddling. There are many external controls; some existing, some in prospect. Central government itself, OFSTED and the Audit Commission have, or could be given, powers to ensure there is no abuse of local authority responsibilities. There is also too much to do and a new spirit to be captured in education.

What is to be gained from foundation status if funding is to be the same as for community schools? It may be an image matter, a marketing edge. Perhaps being in greater control of admissions would be an attraction. The ownership of land and buildings and the employment of staff are duties "purchased" by the financial contribution of aided school foundations. The schools may wish not to be part of local democratic accountability. But, if the purpose of foundation status is any of these, why should this Government back it? Where are the advantages to the majority of children, their families and their communities?

Some suggest that different kinds of school are necessary to protect against uniformity. That fear draws on a tabloid-press-style caricature which is so far from reality as to be difficult to comprehend. In Hampshire we have more than 500 "different kinds of school". They are different because educational communities respond to the different needs of their local communities. Those differences do not have to be constitutionalised into different status. Indeed, I believe it would be dangerous and wrong to do so.

If foundation status were created, there would be a great deal of extra legal and financial work for central and local government and for professional consultants. There would have to be much research and huge rows about assets. All would incur significant, unproductive costs. If GM schools and their assets returned to the original owner that work has been done and any upheaval would be significantly less than the proposals in the technical paper.

Excellence in schools is a passion which we in local authorities share with Tony Blair and David Blunkett. Like them, we are excited by the part that the whole education service can play in raising achievement, minimising disaffection and improving behaviour. The realisation of that excitement about excellence means using our energy in a productive way, not in debates about structures.

In Hampshire we can feel the excitement and know there is energy to be released, yet already conversation with heads and teachers moves quickly from education to status. Governors, heads and staff want to concentrate on standards, but status does matter.

The Government has the opportunity to provide a fresh start, to exploit energies in the education service and to focus everyone on raising standards. If it does not now settle the huge frustration felt over structure, it will have lost a major opportunity and ignored a large majority.

Peter Coles is county education officer for Hampshire.

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