Give us back our freedom

14th July 2000 at 01:00
As Labour's enthusiasm for local education authorities wanes, former GM schools are eager to reclaim their independence, write researchers Tony Bush, Lesley Anderson, and Christine Wise.

GRANT-maintained schools may have been abolished but our research shows many still yearn for their old status. And it looks as if their wish may soon be granted.

It increasingly appears that the return of GM schools to local-authority control by the newly-elected Labour Government was only a temporary setback for self-management.

Several recent Government initiatives and press reports indicate that self management is very much back on the agenda. This apparent revival for school autonomy can be seen in the following: top-up grants this year of up to pound;50,000 paid directly to schools; plans for independent "city academies"; Office for Standards in Education reports on "failing" LEAs; a Green Paper in the summer on direct funding for schools; and the Conservative party's promise to give heads and governors complete responsibility for running their schools.

It is against this background of a dramatic resurgence in support for self management that we conducted pilot research with 11 "foundation" schools (the new status of former GM schools). These were among the first to opt out in September 1989 and thus had most experience of self-management. Our findings show that these pioneers are eager to reclaim their independence.

We interviewed more than 80 heads, staff and governors as well as attending governors' meetings and scrutinising school documents.

While many noted that LEAs were anxious to develop good relations with foundation schools, and referred to a notable lack of animosity, there was little enthusiasm for an LEA role.

One head told us: "We were an outstandingly successful school, as confirmed in two OFSTED reports and did not need the change." Another said: "I don't see the need for an LEA. As far as we are concerned they are an irrelevance."

A teacher-governor commented: "I don't think LEAs should exist. They just create a whole lot of bureaucracy which costs millions of pounds. That money would be better concentrated in the classroom."

In a few cases, there was concern that the LEA was hostile to former GM schools. One head said that his school was "the bete noire of the council" while the chair of governors at the same school said that "the LEA wants to maximise its control or influence over the school".

Another head anticipated a "drip-by-drip move to a dependency culture".

Staff and governor concerns about "excessive" LEA bureaucracy have been given some backing by OFSTED reports which suggest that only nine out of 41 LEAs so far inspected support their schools effectively. In his annual report, Chris Woodhead says: "The rhetoric of school improvement spawns a plethora of ineffective and often unwelcome initiatives which, more often than ot, waste money and confuse and irritate schools."

The OFSTED report on one of the LEAs referred to by our interviewees suggests that there are significant weaknesses.

Inspectors say: "The LEA faces considerable challenges in working with its secondary schools. Half the secondary schools were previously accustomed to the independence of grant-maintained status and are sceptical about what the LEA can offer them."

This scepticism can be seen in the comments of one of the most experienced governors at one of these schools, who was involved in the original opting out campaign. He said: "The LEA's role within the school is wholly undesirable and a retrograde step."

The financial upheaval experienced during the conversion from GM to foundation status hit the headlines when the head of London Oratory school - the school that two of Tony Blair's children attend - said that it was heading for a pound;250,000 deficit and asked parents for a pound;30-a-month contribution.

This illustrated the inevitable problems arising from dipping into school budgets to pay for LEA services. All the schools we spoke to expressed concern about this, even though the impact has been cushioned by transitional payments.

One bursar said funding was being "skimmed" by the LEA "to support bureaucracy".

All the schools said the loss of GM status had led to cuts in staff, larger class sizes and cuts in spending on books and equipment.

Few people in schools and LEAs will lose much sleep over these problems because they regard these cuts as essential to equalise funding across different types of school. However, it raises fundamental issues about the balance of funding between schools and LEAs.

The debate over how much schools should get has been ignited by the direct grants handed out to them in the Budget, and Education Secretary David Blunkett's radical plans to ring fence cash for LEAs and schools.

The future of LEAs is in the balance. It seems likely that the government will give all schools the financial freedom that was previously the preserve of GM schools. This is ironic because "Old" Labour opposed opting-out and was determined to return GM schools to LEA control.

While that pledge has been fulfilled but the new model of self-management Blunkett envisages does not appear very different from the GM model he opposed so strongly before the 1992 election.

Following the recent National Association of Head Teachers' conference, general secretary David Hart said: "The government is moving as close as it possibly can to making all schools quasi grant-maintained. I certainly don't think that schools will have any qualms about that."

Professor Tony Bush and Dr Lesley Anderson are from the Educational Management Development Unit of the University of Leicester. Dr Christine Wise is from the Centre for Educational Policy and Management at the Open University.

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