Guile over substance

10th December 2004 at 00:00
Proposals for a major expansion in the role of schools could have some detrimental effects on local communities, writes Joan Sallis

Like Stephen Adamson, who wrote a piece for this slot last week, I am appalled by the latest government "initiatives" on foundation schools and, in the same package, the expansion of popular schools and new sixth-forms.

I loved his use of a "genetically modified crops" metaphor - bad for you, always springing up in other guises and apparently ineradicable.

The unlamented Conservative crop of grant-maintained schools should surely have been left to wither. True, Labour stopped watering it, and that party's attempt to re-name but not shame seemed clever. But alas, no luck.

When will governments realise that you don't improve standards by giving schools a bewildering array of fancy names, such as "academies", that suggest exclusivity, removing them from what community discipline we thought we had, and then encouraging them to breed?

It is a cruel deception of parents who already find the whole business incomprehensible. I particularly regret the timing of this mean, gas-guzzling distraction (Doing well with the alternative lifestyle vocabulary today, aren't we?) when the Government has a huge task in hand, perhaps the greatest ever in education - of making schools cradle-to-adolescence care centres.

It is exciting but a little frightening when you realise what it is prepared to be distracted by. The Government wants a big expansion of foundation schools, whose superior quality remains unproven. A school can become an FS by an alarmingly quick procedure, a short consultation and one vote, totally disregarding the apparatus of community consent that exists at local education authority level to judge developments that could have implications for other schools.

At similar speed, and with similar disregard for community constraints, it also wants to see popular schools being allowed to expand andor add sixth-forms.

At present, such changes would need careful debate in the local community.

(And, by the way, don't forget the closing date for comments to the Department for Education and Skills is - you guessed it - December 30.) To take foundation schools first: the foundation itself would own a lot of what used to be community property, and employ staff directly. But the school would be run with as little accountability to parents and community as ingenuity can devise. Only one of the parents on the governing body would be elected, and the rest would be chosen by a distant body of which we know little. The foundation would also be an admissions authority.

In this case, the term "parent" would be redefined to include anyone who uses services provided on the school site, presumably ranging from childcare to judo. But surely a facilities management committee would be the right forum to deal with these.

Nothing in the proposals suggests that there would be mechanisms to consider other neighbourhood schools, or achieve any transparency in governance. Indeed, mystery adds to the exclusivity, it seems.

Foundation schools could expand easily, as would others that had proven popular -apparently with no thought for the effect on schools which, by the way, might effectively be serving difficult neighbourhoods but with no crowd-pulling quality.

Even disregarding the effect on neighbourhood interests, is it always a good idea for what is popular to get bigger? How many schools would have the space, recreation facilities, specialist teachers, rooms or meals provision to expand safely - not to mention the je ne sais quoi (which may not be unconnected with size) that makes a school popular?

There is plenty of scope for change now, but provision for careful local consultation and study is built in to protect school and neighbourhood from losing its "magic" or harming others.

Finally, sixth-forms. There may be cases in which an 11-16 comprehensive could expand and provide good sixth-form facilities and harm no one.

Indeed, many do so. But there are not many 11-16 schools that could instantly provide the full range of old, new and vocational options in demand today. And even if there were, would that not run the risk of causing other comprehensives in the area to become, in effect, secondary moderns, and thus add another tier to the choice structure?

Of course, there might be places where it could be done and work well, but there should at least be mechanisms in place to see it as a community decision. And that decision would also have to take account of any successful further education or tertiary colleges in the equation. Of course, I do not deny that a traditional sixth-form might be the right choice for many, but surely it should not threaten the wide range of opportunities available to that age group?

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