Third way to freedom

21st November 1997 at 00:00
Bob Doe reports on a radical call to make all schools self-governing

Governors have a vital role to play in building more participatory and democratic communities as well as better run schools, says Dr Dick Atkinson, founder of a pioneering community development project in Birmingham.

In a polemical booklet written for the free-market Institute for Economic Affairs Dr Atkinson challenges the Labour government to make all schools "self-governing" and to redirect into them hundreds of pounds per pupil by minimising the role of local education authorities.

He rejects the left-right split and the dependency culture encouraged by local authorities and the welfare state, in favour of a "third way" in which governors help to build more self-reliant communities to rejuvenate society.

The third way involves not competition and division but the liberation of untapped energy, Dr Atkinson says. "It promotes a powerful sense of personal ownership, generates ethical investment, creates civic assets and local pride.

"It builds the capacity of people to shape and improve the social, economic and cultural quality of their lives, almost imperceptibly moving into a situation in which the state no longer dominates, enabling others in the third and private sectors to provide."

Concerned that Labour may be returning schools to the "drab pre-1980s days of overbearing town and county halls" he calls on the Government to make a radical reform, to "think the unthinkable" as Frank Field has been encouraged to do in relation to pensions. "It is possible to go beyond the division of grant-maintained versus locally managed and put in place confident self-governing schools and clusters of schools which will happily enter into productive new partnerships with redrafted, visionary and slimmed-down local authorities."

He echoes the words of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, whom he quotes as saying, "No more money for education . . . use existing money in more effective ways."

"Schools do not so much need new money as to access that which is already in the system," Dr Atkinson argues, pointing to calculations which suggest many authorities hold back 30 per cent or more of the funding intended for education.

"Schools of all kinds must be made self-governing. It is no longer relevant for them to be managed or funded by bureaucrats." Instead he wants a computer working out school funding per child according to a nationally agreed formula; "vigorous" governors, "enterprising" headteachers and a new breed of school-based administrators working alongside independent suppliers of education services.

In place of the old education authority, new and leaner local authority departments would co-ordinate admissions, set targets, audit school spending, hold schools to account for school standards and stimulate the regeneration of urban communities.

Schools would respond by raising standards and opening family, homeschool study and enterprise centres enabling people to gain pride and ownership of education. Schools would become the "engines" through which "real welfare is delivered in neighbourhoods at a personal level."

Towards self-governing schools by Dick Atkinson, published by the Institute of Economic Affairs (Pounds 11)

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