Let private sector run failing schools

17th January 1997 at 00:00
So the leader of the Labour party has been persuaded by his advisers that it would be a good idea to let headteachers of successful schools take over those deemed to be failing. I suppose we shouldn't be surprised, given the never ending search by Tony Blair to find some difference in policy - or a different way of doing the same thing - from the Tories. Here they clearly accept the requirement for takeover of dodgy schools in the manner of education associations, but of course they are still in thrall to the Labour-controlled local authorities, many of whom are part of the problem anyway.

I've no doubt that there are heads who are capable of taking over other schools: there are many immensely able practitioners in successful establishments, and some would take on additional establishments out of a sense of commitment or, in some cases, power, but why should they and to whose benefit? This idea generates many grisly thoughts but I give you three which are crucial to the way an incoming Labour government would run education.

Labour appears not yet to have grasped just how demanding running one school is these days, particularly in our more difficult areas, let alone two. It demands total commitment from its leadership and to dilute it will most likely have an adverse effect with the potential to weaken one school and not sufficiently strengthen the other. This daft idea highlights the problem we have with listening to those who only talk about education but have never actually got their hands dirty.

There is an underlying assumption that schools should be the same: the stultifying sameness of a comprehensive school system that is becoming more and more discredited. This proposal shows that Labour has no thought to pursue the policy begun by the Conservatives, but as yet insufficiently carried through, of diversifying secondary education by ability and aptitude. In other words having different kinds of schools populated by children and staff having corresponding skills and aspirations. All we can look forward to is a retreat into mediocrity.

This idea reveals that Labour is incapable of thinking outside the present system and that it has no capacity for meaningful innovation within a service that is crying out for it. That we have failing schools is not in dispute and the Conservatives have gone some way to acting against them by introducing new approaches that have caused eruptions of outrage in almost every case from schools and most local authorities. To an extent these approaches are being seen to work and they will work a good deal better than the Labour party notion which includes getting local authorities to identify schools in trouble. If local authorities with failing schools had done their job properly we wouldn't have to worry now about poor standards in them. And yet here we have an invitation to do what they've so spectacularly not done in the past.

If Mr Blair is really serious about education standards then he has to recognise two things. The present system is such that whichever party is in power, it can't afford to do what is needed if it sticks to existing arrangements, particularly in respect of the capital investment required to reconstitute the infrastructure. There is plenty of revenue swilling around the system if only it was used wisely but the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement will be a major headache for any incoming government. To tinker about at the margins of the present structure will not help a jot.

There are people and organisations outside the state sector which could run education a good deal better than many - but not all - schools and local authorities and they should be given the chance. We could start by allowing the private sector to run failing schools; an opportunity based on quality with a guarantee of deregulation attached to every aspect of their administration - curriculum, pay and conditions of service. Then we could become more innovative and practical and put the whole lot out to tender. Privatise it along with complete deregulation. Let's allow the private sector to use its educational expertise and its investment muscle and thereby get rid for good of that which is inadequate.

Let's recognise that the improvements made over the past few years will founder without a structure supporting them and that the system we have does not tolerate progress, whichever party is in power.

Michael Stoten is the former chief education officer for Kensington and Chelsea.

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