In the second of a series on the Government's reform plans, Mark Whitehead looks at the future for self-managing status
Standards are what really count, not structures, according to the Government. It is a central plank of the White Paper, Excellence in Schools, which will underpin the new Education Bill later in the autumn.
New Labour has, it seems, no wish to fight yesterday's battles over opted-out schools, grammar schools, or city technology colleges. But the changes proposed in the way schools are organised within their local education authority are bound to affect the way school managers carry out their jobs. They could lead to schools that previously rejected grant-maintained status giving consideration to the greater independence promised by foundation status: independence many GM heads are anxious they may lose.
The White Paper suggests how the creation of the GM sector led to concerns about fairness and the willingness of schools to work together. There was a lack of clarity about who was accountable. The breaking up of a largely uniform state comprehensive system into various divisions created confusion and strife. "We need a new framework which strikes a better balance between fairness, co-operation, diversity between schools and the power of schools to decide their own affairs", the White Paper says.
At the heart of the Government's proposals now out for consultation is the concept of creating "families of schools", with the local education authority overseeing how they operate. LEAs will not control schools, ministers have been at pains to stress, but will act as local co-ordinating bodies. Nationally, promoted by the Government and soon to be enshrined in the Education Bill, the new management culture will be based more on teamwork and fairness than competition.
The White Paper proposes that all maintained schools will be placed in one of three new categories. Broadly speaking, existing county schools are expected to become community schools, while voluntary-controlled schools and grant-maintained schools would become foundation schools. Voluntary-aided schools and former voluntary-aided GM schools are expected to opt for aided status.
Relationships between former GM schools and the rest of the educational community will have to be re-established following the period of relative autonomy they have enjoyed.
Dr Alan Leech, head of Bohunt community school in Liphook, Hampshire, says: "We will need to open up and strengthen links with the local education authority which had become less used during the GM period.
"We've concentrated more on developing relationships with our parents and local community and less with outside bodies. I've had to devote less time to liaising with the local authority officers than was the case in the past, attend fewer meetings and read fewer documents from the authority.
"Now we've got to look to the future and see what kind of direction we're going to be given from outside: whether it's going to be emphatic or more by suggestion and discussion.
"The main impact is going to be whether we have permission to spend our budget in the same way as now, and how much the LEA is going to feel it needs to retain to meet its functions. GM schools are concerned to make sure that the maximum amount is devolved to schools and that the amount that is retained centrally is only what is need to fulfil obligations to children and to spearhead the improvement in standards that the Government has put at the centre of its policy."
John Knowles, head of King Edward VI Five Ways school in Bartley Green, Birmingham, faces uncertainty. The "indicative" choice for his school is that it will become aided, but, as a former voluntary-aided school but with a governing body which is not predominantly religious, foundation status would seem more appropriate.
But until there is more information about how the different categories of school will work, and what their relationship with the LEA will be, it remains difficult for Mr Knowles to know what to recommend. "It's essential that there is more information about the different types of school and that there is a clear job description for the LEA," he says. "GM schools have been enormously successful and morale has been very good, and it's not just a question of having more money. It's to do with a management style one has been able to adopt. We've been able to decide our own targets and we've been in control of our own decisions."
The worry among governors is that because the proposals give schools the opportunity of choosing to go for a status other than the indicative one they have been allocated, precious time could be spent debating the issue rather than on other matters.
Initial returns to a survey by the National Governors Council have found many of its members fear that, ironically, the element of choice in the White Paper's proposals will focus attention on structures rather than standards, contrary to the Government's intentions.
NGC chairman Pat Petch says: "Many questions have been left up in the air and we're not sure how it will work in practice. What is being proposed is not simply to allocate schools to a new category but to give them choice, which will inevitably stir up a big debate in many areas about what kind of status to go for.
"The system being proposed is not as simple as it looks. It's actually very elaborate and because it gives schools a choice people will be looking for the benefits and disadvantages of each category of school. Governors are going to have to spend a lot of time working out what it will mean for their schools. "
Colin Canon, head of Brampton GM junior school in north-east Cumbria, has already had experience of working with other schools. In his area, 15 primary schools in the GM and county sectors meet twice a term to exchange information and help as a part of a consortium. It works well, while preserving the independence of the GM schools, says Mr Canon. "Schools want to co-operate with each other but they also want to manage themselves. They want to make their own decisions because each one is different."
Like many GM school heads, Carlton Duncan, of George Dixon School in Edgbaston, Birmingham, is worried about the plan to put two LEA representatives on the governing bodies of foundation schools and the possibility of part of his budget being taken back by the LEA.
But, like Mr Canon, he argues that managerial independence can go hand-in-hand with the new spirit of co-operation. "Anything which detracts even in a small way from the arrangements we have enjoyed is to be regretted," he says.
"Having LEA representatives on our governing body will inevitably hold back the decision-making process because they will try to bring back some control over us. The benefit of being a GM school is that we can take decisions instantly in the interests of the children and we have complete control over our budget.
"But the GM sector never wanted to be isolated. We were forced into it because LEAs shunned us. But independence shouldn't mean isolation. Schools which are independent nevertheless know the benefits of sharing good practice."
Next week Why "fairer" funding could mean many schools get less
FRAMEWORK FOR A NEW TEAMWORK CULTURE
All state sector schools will become community, foundation or aided. Generally:
* county schools are expected to become community schools * most voluntary controlled, ex-voluntary controlled GM, ex-county GM and GM schools established by the Funding Agency for Schools will become foundation schools * voluntary-aided, special agreement, ex-voluntary-aided GM, ex-special agreement GM and ex-independent GM schools are expected to become aided * All LEA and GM special schools will become community special schools * Except for special schools, the categories are "indicative": the governing body will be able to choose an alternative if it can meet certain requirements.
* Governing bodies must consult interested parties before making a decision. They may hold a ballot of parents. If more than 50 per cent of parents vote and more than 50 per cent of them vote for a category other than the one the governors have chosen, the Secretary of State will make the final decision