The right potion to lure back opt-outs

9th August 1996 at 01:00
The mainly muddled White Paper on self-government capitalises on good local management practice.

Perhaps it ought not to be surprising to find so good a chapter within so bad a document. Pre-election manifestos, into which category all White Papers now fall, are less concerned with intellectual coherence than with pressing as many different buttons as possible, among voters and among fundamentalists within. Certainly Self-Government for Schools is an awful mixture.

Some of it is just awful. The attempt to suggest that more selection is somehow a solution is sad, because so far off beam. It disregards the mountain of within-school selection that is already built into the system, by setting, by outcome, or by teaching method. Selection is alive and well. It never left. The White Paper ignores that.

Worse, it assumes that a return to selection by schools will somehow lever up standards across the system - an assumption that the statistics of the past 20 years have proven false, and which even those who happily work in and celebrate the success of pupils in the remaining selective schools do not seek to propose.

Worst of all, it somehow pretends to believe, with Alice in Wonderland logic, that we can bring back from the past a selective tier without bringing back secondary modern schools. Unbelievably it expects the public to be dazzled by the politician's repetitive use of the word "choice" into voting for a return to secondary moderns as the brave new system for the vast majority of our children.

Unfortunately for the Government, the rise of consumerism has made all but the most gullible of public-service punters more sophisticated than that about "choice". The consumer now realises, not least because of Government over-reliance on the idea, that "choices" interact. More kidney transplants might mean fewer hip replacements. Efficiency in the targeting of heart repair resources might mean older consumers get left forever at the back of the queue for operations. Choice for some does not mean choice for all.

Of course those facing a particular problem can be relied upon to react with self-interest to the dangling of any choice piece of bait. Don't expect me to vote for improving the general provision of the district hospital if one of my children is dying of a specific disease.

But given an honest, open, unpressured choice, none of us has any difficulty at all. We want every hospital to be a good one, doing the very best it can, within available resources, to achieve the best health for all. We do not want to see world-class health care in the North, at the expense of a damaged service in the South (or vice versa). Above all, we do not want hospitals to choose patients. Not if they use the power of selection to choose only the ones who, statistically, are most likely to recover after the treatment, in order to grab more resources, taken from the universal hospital provision, as a reward for their effectiveness and efficiency. No, even though I might be young and healthy, I know I will grow older and weaker, and I have friends, family and neighbours who already are.

So every hospital must be a good one. Every school must be a good one. Therefore all hospitals and all schools must be embedded in a health or education service which leads to a universal service of quality.

Individual parents are always likely to behave like Harriet Harman. Voters en masse, in a late 20th-century consumerist society, are not quite so blinkered.

And yet and yet. This awful White Paper, which is a slur on the excellent idea of self-government, has a chapter on the interaction of modern, locally-managed schools with local authorities which really does show the way for the future.

Here, the good logic of local management of schools is followed. School improvement is demanded, but the source of improvement is rightly located within schools themselves.

Local authorities are given powers to intervene, but only in acute cases. There is no general power to insist on an LEA-mandatory method of management, teaching or learning. LEAs, as keepers of a wider democratic perspective than the narrower (but equally "democratic") perspective of the institution and its governing body, have powers to plan the supply of places and admissions, but everything a school can do is delegated to it, with the resources.

Better still, where a school needs wider expertise (whether on premises, legal advice, staff development) the resources to buy it are still delegated, unless no other group than the authority could provide it.

This makes LMS sense. Schools should be able to "buy back" advice and expertise from the authority, and will usually do so, especially where authorities really do see their role as serving schools in partnership, in the interests of the young. But there will be the necessary discipline of the market (for it is not the market that is evil, it is the total reliance on market forces, which the present Government's interpretation of "choice" falsely offers as saviour).

Schools too, are rightly subject to the discipline of accountability, and not only to governing body and current parents. The authority can step in, even in cases not justifying managerial intervention, with analysis of performance, and with warnings. If necessary, authorities can call for independent inspection.

Excellent. Schools, though, should be able to challenge such analysis, and themselves call on independent inspection to prove competence. What the authority must not do is to be both judge and jury, by taking on the independent inspection role. That slowly, but inevitably, turns the right to intervene in special cases into outmoded authority management of all schools. LMS tried to liberate all schools into the adult partnership which the best authorities and their schools know is right. Such a partnership alone can free schools to focus on service to their learners, rather than service to an administration.

So good authorities have nothing to fear from this outstanding chapter in an otherwise dreadful, backward-looking White Paper. Labour's David Blunkett should immediately steal this one (reflecting that it is nothing but a clarified version of his party's "diversity and excellence"). Get this right, and there will be every prospect of the grant-maintained or foundation schools choosing to re-enter the LEA system, and heal a breach the current Government, to its discredit, made a feature of the 1990s' landscape. Away with the White Paper's nonsense on "choice" and "selection". Forward to modern 21st-century self-government.

Bruce Douglas is vice-president elect of the Secondary Heads Association

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