Parents, not politicians, must rule
John Major's recent announcement that he wants all schools to become grant maintained was obviously a piece of summer kite flying. The only way to achieve that would be by coercion, which the Prime Minister's staff ruled out - at least for the moment - and which would be opposed by many within the Conservative party and outside it.
His comments are helpful, however, in generating a debate that focuses on what support services schools need and how best to provide them.
The Prime Minister said that he believed in trusting heads, teachers and governors to run their schools, but that is largely what they do already. The changes that flowed from the 1988 Education Reform Act, in particular local management, have revolutionised thinking and practice in schools and education authorities. The days when authorities were able to lay down the law and tell schools what they were to do are long gone.
In one sense the difference between being grant or local authority maintained is relatively small now, at least for secondary schools. Authorities have reorganised their services so that their schools can choose to buy them or not. Where the local authority is strong its schools will happily buy in, with personnel, payroll and legal support usually among the most popular. Common services like school library and musical instruments are particularly valued by primary schools. If the authority is no good, then opting out is an alternative.
In another sense the difference between the GM and local authority sectors is considerable, and this goes to the heart of how we perceive the education system.
If your model is the creation of an education market then the authority gets in the way and you would prefer its abolition. In its place schools act as free-standing institutions competing for business. Good schools expand while poor schools go to the wall. Standards are checked through inspections every four years with education associations ready to take over as a last resort. Diversity is encouraged as schools seek an advantage over their neighbour, with the unspoken option of secondary schools going back to selection to give them a marketing advantage. With this diversity comes greater choice, which keeps the parent customer satisfied.
Even in many Conservative areas this model holds few attractions, because education is just not like this. In a free market people can choose not to buy, but the law requires parents to educate their children. In urban areas there will be a number of schools to choose from, but in the rest of the country, especially at secondary level, choice ranges from limited to non- existent. Good schools do expand to an extent, though it is worth remembering that the larger a school gets the more difficult it is to manage.
Failing schools are a problem whatever the system. Even the GM sector has its failures. Sometimes it takes an external force to sort things out. There are two factors common to these institutions. First, the head is usually a major part of the problem and second, he is usually the last person to recognise this. An education authority can give quiet but effective support in tackling the problem. Kill it off and there is nobody to undertake this delicate task. You are left with relying on governors, who do not have the professional knowledge to guide the head, or the blunt instrument of inspections and the sledgehammer of education associations.
Making all schools go grant maintained probably would increase diversity, though that is not necessarily an advantage. Neither does greater diversity automatically mean more parental choice. Britain had a much more diverse system of secondary education in the 1950s and 1960s when the tripartite system was the norm, a system that some would like to return to. Selection did not give parents choice of school, it gave some schools choice of pupil. It also wrote most children off as failures at 11. The greater the difference between schools the greater the disappointment of parents whose children do not get into their first choice.
Some competition between schools is healthy, but so is a spirit of co- operation. The great advantage of a well-run local authority is that it can bring together resources to promote the pursuit of quality where everyone supports each other. This partnership makes available a strong body of locally knowledgeable people who can give support and guidance when it is needed.
Of course GM schools also have access to advice. They can buy in services from the authority, though that would disappear if all schools are forced to opt out. They can also buy from the private sector, though the option is sometimes limited.
There is a fundamental democratic problem with making all schools go GM. Parents at around 25,000 out of the country's 26,000 schools have either voted against opting out or have not even wanted a ballot. The Government cannot with credibility spend 15 years championing parental choice and then just ignore the choice that most parents have made.
There is a legitimate community interest in a school that is wider than the parents of those children who happen to attend it at any given moment - not least the parents of children who are about to attend it. In a totally GM system there is no democratic way for that wider interest to be represented.
Giving parents the right to opt out has created an extra choice. As long as all schools operate on a level playing field then parents should be left to make that choice. In some cases the balance of advantage may lie with opting out, in others there will be good reasons for staying with the authority. The decision should stay with parents, for they know better than prime ministers what is best for their children.
Demitri Coryton is the chairman of the Conservative Education Association.