Don't let a little middle tier bring you down
Gillian Shephard, the Education Secretary, while refusing to retreat on grant-maintained status as one vehicle for self-government, reportedly agrees that unbridled market forces do not necessarily answer every single question. Don Foster, for the Liberal Democrats, believing in local education authorities as a concept, seems also to see the necessity of them being "enabling" and "strategic" (rather than managing) bodies.
Meanwhile, the local government review process, until now so uncaring of education that it hardly received a mention, threatens to produce so wide a range of unitary or two-tier structures that anything from two to 100 secondary schools could fall within "local authority" ambit, apparently regardless of whether the notion of a "strategic" LEA has any meaning when applied to just two or three secondary schools.
The growth of the GM sector has slowed fairly dramatically, but the use of the Common Funding Formula is being greatly extended geographically, pointing perhaps to boundary-blind national funding norms, which could arrive very soon. The Funding Agency for Schools already exists as one model of an LEA boundary-crossing structure, with some historic LEA functions and some new, middle-tier, ones.
An awareness grows that the clock cannot be put back, but nor will it stand still. The Secondary Heads Association, the "voice of secondary education", is swept along too. It finds itself with 1,000 GM school leaders (heads and deputies) in its membership. This is a significant fraction, and is broadly repeated in national working groups and committees, and is therefore integrated into discussions about the common tasks of school leadership and school improvement, and about a better funding system. Thinking and planning already extends beyond the next general election date. Hence the sigh of relief for politicians of left, right or centre, who show some intelligent caution in answering the question "What next?", and some genuine interest either in new structures or, as important, in new definitions of old ones.
Modern definitions of the "middle tier" are certainly needed. Of course, John Patten and Kenneth Baker when they were education secretaries repeatedly denied the huge centralisation of power brought about by Government control of curriculum, assessment, admissions procedures, and funding frameworks for locally-managed and opt-out schools. They claimed this was really a part of "giving schools back to the people" through LMS and GMS. But was it? Not quite.
First, (and we must never stop saying it, even post-Dearing) a governing body's educational - as opposed to employer - control is largely a fake until it has enough curriculum control (say for half the week in key stage 4).
Second, no school is an island. There is always a question of how its relations with others and with the system as a whole are governed.
Let us suppose optimistically that the first flaw is corrected so that it is the governing body which is accountable, at least in KS 4 and beyond, for what it offers beyond English, maths and science.
Next comes the key question. Would the fact that individual institutions are then genuinely self-governing, of itself constitute "adequate democratic control"?
The answer is no. Clearly there are area planning and capital allocation functions no one institution can govern.
The simple response is to support either old-style LEAs or new-style FAS bodies. But as school leaders (and as such apolitical) we are ultimately concerned with the more practical question of what "middle-tier" characteristics and functions should apply to whatever educational framework any government endorses. Certainly, any area body should have some accountability to a meaningful democratic unit (ie wider than a school governing body, more local than the Department for Education). But here the disputes over the definitions begin. A localregional body is not seen as local (or democratic) unless it is genuinely representative and, many therefore would say, one characteristic is that it is elected (but there are other possible "representative" models).
A second condition of "meaningful democratic unit" might be that it has power to decide to fund the schools in its area beyond a national minimum, and to decide how that extra funding is allocated, beyond a national formula, and outside "capping" arrangements.
But let us not overlook in supporting that condition the point that a "good" (ie fair and sufficient) national funding formula, allocated at school level according to equitable national need-norms, could indeed render almost total self-government at school level the main (but not only) "democratic" device. It is only the perceived "inequity" of recent funding decisions that makes national-funding-regime-plus-governing body curriculum control seem ineligible for the description "democratic system". Thus there is a strong link between fair funding and concepts of local democracy.
Two things are certain. First, the idea that pure market forces can adequately plan has already been abandoned. For example, ideas of "value for money" and "consumer choice" (however both are defined) are clearly going to be used to justify "market interventions" by FAS. LEAs always did that using their values. So, yes, views differ on the future of the FAS - but in some sense, an intellectual agreement has already been demonstrated against total de-regulation. Surely something to build on?
The other abiding certainty is that schools will never again agree that anything other than genuine school-level decision-making should be the daily norm.
The solution may be a return to LEAs (a good number of those 1,000 SHA grant-maintained members would cheer - but only if 21st century LEAs believed in real school-level self-government). Or the outcome may be a "regionalised", "de-quangoed", "democratic" FAS. It may even be their joint evolution (at least for the secondary sector) into a new creature.
Let us, Northern Ireland style, abandon all preconceived solutions, and all old battles. The point is, the secondary sector needs a secure, integrated base, and it needs it soon. All schools have important business that "framework fights" will divert us from. A single framework would seem best, a divided one would be manageable, a divisive one cannot last.
I believe school leaders of both sectors are largely united in demanding we develop further the advantages of LMSGMS self-government (advanced to include the curriculum), while re-emphasising a sense of national togetherness and local community.
SHA has work to do on that - but so has the Funding Agency for Schools, and so have local education authorities. Whether it's FAS, LEA or a mixture of the two in 1997, any middle-tier candidate that wants to survive long term has some thinking to do. So have all political parties. The next election will be too late for think-tanks to produce new ideas and, heaven help our schools, we want no stale or simplistic ones from any side.
Bruce Douglas is principal of Branston Community College, Lincolnshire, and honorary legal secretary of the Secondary Heads Association.