Our mutual friends;Platform;Opinion

19th June 1998 at 01:00
The role of schools is central to a radical overhaul of education, argues Peter Kellner in the second of our series on the search for a Third Way

As Tony Blair's Government enters its second year, it has to deliver on two big themes. The first, announced before last year's election, is to convert "education, education, education" from a slogan to the reality of a better service; the second is to put flesh on the still-skeletal idea that Labour is pursuing a distinctive "third way", different from old-left socialism and new-right advocacy of the free market. Should part of Labour's strategy be to link these two themes: to apply third-way principles to the future of our schools?

At last month's Downing Street seminar on the Third Way, there was significant support for the name "mutualism". More importantly, most participants, in one way or another, subscribed to the thinking that the word describes - that "individual and collective well-being is attainable only by mutual dependence" (as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary).

At one level, mutualism offers a way out of the sterile argument between state ownership and private enterprise. A mutualist economy is one in which enterprises respect their staff, customers and the environment, and refuse to ride rough-shod over any of them in pursuit of profit.

At another level, however, mutualism also offers the opportunity for fresh thinking about our big public services - and schools in particular. As with the old Left-Right debate about the economy, there is an urgent need to break out of sterile disputes about the role of schools. Should they be free-standing institutions able to conduct their own admissions policy and pursue particular educational objectives, irrespective of the wider needs or wishes of the local community, or should they be controlled agents of a defined policy, with no real autonomy?

One of the notable features of Conservative rule was that ministers gave both answers at different times. Grant-maintained schools were offered partial autonomy, while the national curriculum extended central control. The combined effect was to hollow out the community's role in adapting local schools to local needs.

To make this point is not to equate mutualism with a larger role for local education authorities. On the whole, David Blunkett and Stephen Byers seem to be striving for the right balance, in which schools have maximum control over their budgets, but LEAs retain particular collective functions, above all in relation to admissions policy. Mutualism, rather, is about the culture of our schools, and the way they need to adapt to the globalised, information-driven economy of the 21st century. A mutualist strategy will undoubtedly need institutional and legislative changes, but these should flow from the process of thinking through education strategy. They should not be a bring-back-the-good-old-days starting point.

What, then, would a mutualist strategy involve? First, a recognition that schools are built on a series of mutual relationships: between the head and the rest of the staff; between teachers and pupils, between the staff and the parents, and between the school and the local community. Put like that, it sounds obvious. However, if every school was to succeed in getting every one of these relationships right, then our education system would look very different: more open and responsive, with greater parental and community involvement. Instead, we would enter an era of "stakeholder" schools, analogous to the best "stakeholder" companies; but the stakeholders would be staff, pupils, parents and residents, rather than managers, workers, customers and shareholders.

There is a second, deeper, layer to a mutualist strategy for schools. It goes beyond encouraging them to better perform their activities. It would also expand their functions to equip our children - and the rest of us - to cope with the future. Seventy years ago, Henry Morris, the visionary founder of Cambridgeshire's village college system, said that one of his aims was "to raise the school-leaving age to 90". He wanted schools to help people of all ages to learn new skills, crafts and hobbies. Schools would be open every evening and at weekends and in the holidays: caring for children seven hours a day, five days a week, 40 weeks a year would just be one of their tasks.

The need for such facilities has grown immensely since the 1920s; yet the non-educational institutions able to provide them have declined. We have fewer working men's clubs and church-based societies. Yet our schools live on as trusted community institutions that, for the most part, serve both genders, all faiths and all races. They are ideal places in which to nurture mutualism in its widest sense: places where we acknowledge that we depend on, and can help, each other; where we can both exercise our rights and discharge our responsibilities.

Viewed in that larger perspective, schools would become much more than institutions where teachers teach children. They would be places in which MPs would hold their surgeries; where parents run after-school clubs; where children teach adults how to use computers; where public health campaigns on nutrition - for everyone, not just kids - are centred; where Citizens Advice Bureaux and local councils offer help; where training and retraining courses are provided every evening, weekend and holiday. Much of the Government's welfare-to-work strategy concerns lone parents of school-age children; by expanding the functions of schools, we would expand the need for, and therefore jobs available to, precisely the kind of people who have most difficulty juggling work and home life.

Already examples of each of these activities can be found. For example, eight A-level students at a Berkshire school are giving lessons in computer skills. Their paying customers include teachers. The need now is to make them part of the core function of our schools. To succeed in this would be to provide "education, education, education" in its fullest sense - and also to make third-way mutualism a reality. To adapt the RSPCA slogan about pets, schools should be not just for children, but for life.

Peter Kellner is a political commentator. He took part in a Downing Street seminar on the Third Way in May

Next Week: Charles Leadbeater

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