Think-tank's treatise backs move to GM

11th November 1994 at 00:00
The second treatise on education from the left-leaning think-tank, Demos, takes up the ideas of the grant-maintained school advocate, Dick Atkinson, the former adviser to Birmingham education authority, who resigned claiming the low standards in its schools had made the council "a laughing stock".

According to Dr Atkinson - now an education consultant who provides advice to schools on winning the parental vote in ballots on opting out - grant-maintained schools are more accountable to their neighbourhoods. The fact that a GM school has at least 15 governors elected and co-opted from among parents and others in the neighbourhood means they are well-placed to become community schools, he says.

The Demos pamphlet, The Common Sense of Community, suggests there are more than educational benefits from opting out. It is more democratic, says Dr Atkinson, because the control of education is taken out of the hands of a group of councillors. In addition, schools become politically neutral and are more likely to take on the concerns of the catchment area and their parent customers.

The central argument is that urban communities can be rebuilt around schools and other self-governing institutions such as residents' associations. Dr Atkinson, who is chair of the Balsall Heath neighbourhood forum in Birmingham, cites as evidence the St Paul's community project which grew up in the area. The project includes St Paul's secondary school, described as a charitable school, which has 35 pupils, who, according to Dr Atkinson, would otherwise be roaming the streets. He claims the school has outperformed all but six of the city's secondary schools in the GCSE league tables (In 1993, three out of the seven fifth-formers achieved five or more higher grade GCSEs).

However,the school has actually been funded by the local authority for more than a decade and is currently getting around Pounds 150,000 a year from the budget which funds voluntary agencies. The pamphlet does not mention that the LEA has inspected the school and expressed concern that it is not covering all the national curriculum. Its future funding is being reviewed pending discussions about whether the school can take steps to improve its curriculum coverage or whether it should become a referral unit for excluded pupils. Dr Atkinson says it is such initiatives that allow local people to gain greater control over their lives. In Balsall Heath, the community links that created the school plus nursery centre and farm have, he says, helped the area to lift itself from the "bottom up".

He suggests that central and local government need to slough off the agencies and services they have attempted to provide for people, and instead enable independent initiative to flourish.

The Common Sense of Community is available from Demos, 9 Bridewell Place, London EC4V 6AP, price Pounds 5.95.

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