Headteacher Kate Griffin describes the benefits and difficulties experienced by her school on the path from grant-maintained to foundation status.
When I look at the implications of the choices available to school leaders at present I am reminded of the examination question posed as part of my M.Ed examination: ‘There would have been a national curriculum regardless of the party in power. Discuss.’
I believe that increased autonomy for school leaders would have developed regardless of the political party in power. The introduction of the grant-maintained (GM) system was, in the initial stages, highly political. However, as the number of such schools grew, political allegiance ceased to play a part and local conditions became more and more the driving force.
The following is a very personal account of one such school.
Greenford High School is an 11-18 school in west London. In the spring of 1991 it was a 12-18 school facing a local reorganisation. The local authority had decided to close its middle schools, turn the secondary schools (12-18) into 11-16 schools and create a new Ealing Tertiary College (ETC). The two church schools would start admitting pupils at 11, but would retain their sixth forms.
The reaction to this major upheaval was mixed. Of the ten schools likely to lose their sixth forms, eight voted on becoming grant maintained. At this time I was a deputy in County Durham and about to relocate to London because of my husband’s job. Having been encouraged to apply for headships, I set about applying for the five that appeared in the window between the middle of March and the middle of April.
A complicated position
I very nearly didn’t apply to Greenford because of the proposed grant-maintained vote; such schools were unheard of in County Durham! However, thinking that to get an interview would provide good practice, I applied. At interview I quickly discovered that the position was extremely complicated; the governors, who were about to make the appointment, had voted 14-2 against holding a ballot, but the parents had organised a petition to insist that a ballot be taken in order to keep the sixth form.
I wasn’t asked any questions about the philosophical drive towards GM, only practical questions about how I would proceed were the ballot to go in favour. I was surprised and delighted to be offered the post; the pupils I had met were a joy, the staff friendly and the exam results poor (only 20% achieving more than five GCSEs at A to C).
I started in September and had to wait until the January to hear whether education secretary Gillian Shepherd had approved our application. She had decided to announce her decision on all the schools in Ealing simultaneously. Eight schools had voted, six votes had been in favour. Of the six she approved five, stating that one was likely to need the support of the LEA. (It’s interesting to note that after years of disappointing results that school is now an academy!)
We became a GM school on 1 April 1992 and wondered whether the approaching election would result in us being one of the shortest lived of the breed. However, that was not the case and we set about life in a new context.
A new status The support network for GM schools was very different. Instead of dealing with a few LEA officials who knew a lot about schools, in general we were now dealing with many more civil servants who knew a tremendous amount about one particular aspect of school procedure, but less about the whole picture.
In this new environment it was we as headteachers who became the experts at piecing all the complex pieces of the educational management jigsaw together. Simultaneously we received not only our usual share of the school budget but also a large proportion of the ‘top slice’ previously retained by the LEA, our full share of the budget for training (ours quadrupled), and a much more realistic amount for buildings maintenance.
I think that it was at this point that the balance tipped and in terms of increasing autonomy for school leaders there was no going back. Good authorities had always trusted their heads and given them freedom within their schools. With the advent of the GM system, that level of autonomy became much more common.
The opportunities offered to tailor projects to the needs of the individual school resulted in an ownership and commitment that in turn provided an energy and momentum that spread throughout the school. Not every experience was positive, so I’ll give examples of both.
Greenford High School had been in receipt of what was then known as Section 11 funding (it is now the Ethnic Minority Achievement Grant) via an authority-wide programme. As that came to an end we had to bid on our own. We received more funding than we had previously and as a result started to look at more creative ways of ensuring the money was well spent.
The in-class support for the pupils with the greatest need went on as before, but we also looked at the language development needs of those who, in theory, were no longer in need of direct support. We were concerned that, although they had become verbally competent in English, we did not do enough to ensure that these students were equipped to sit examinations, not only at GCSE level, but also in the sixth form, with the more advanced language skills that A-levels demand. We therefore embarked upon a project to study the needs of the various ethnic groups within the school; a study team consisting of one member of staff from each curriculum area followed a tailor-made course provided by Thames Valley University.
As part of the programme, each member of the team completed a small piece of action research. It was the results of these investigations that not only provided us with explanations of the cause of the underachievement of some groups of pupils, but also provided us with suggestions for the way ahead. This work has been built upon over the years and our results have continued to improve. The achievements in English have been particularly impressive.
The course was recognised as a module for an M.Ed course and some of those involved went on to complete their Master’s degree. The investment in training by the school in terms of funds and the time of the staff were considerable, but it proved very worthwhile since the impact of the whole school training to spread the results of the team’s findings was very encouraging.
Positive effects for the students
During the early 1990s our GCSE results were improving, but, even so, the traditional A-level route was not ideal for the majority. Mindful that it wasn’t only the parents of clever children that had voted for grant-maintained status, in September 1993 we introduced an extensive programme of GNVQs. To do this we needed to develop an extensive training programme for teachers in both the delivery and the examining processes. Had we not had the increased training budget, I doubt we would have managed to achieve the success we did in this area.
It would be wrong to suggest that everything about the new system was perfect – it wasn’t.
The amount of money that we had to spend on general maintenance was considerably more than we were used to. However, when it came to capital works, the GM experience was much less positive. We needed extra space for the Year 7 that was about to join us in September 1993. (We were changing to entry at 11 along with our neighbouring secondary schools.)
But the DfES refused our initial application for funds to build. When I pointed out that the new Year 7 would not fit into the existing accommodation, we were allowed a late application to the round of capital bidding already under way. No answer came. When I enquired, it transpired that the bit must have ‘got lost’ at some point during the move of the funding agency to Darlington. Finally, we agreed that the money we had received to reroof a very leaky flat roof in the art and technology block could be used to build temporary huts which provided the ten extra classrooms we needed. Needless to say these ‘temporary’ classrooms are still in use!
From bad to worse Another frustrating experience was related to an unsuccessful PFI project – we had hoped to borrow money in order to build a new dining hall. The Funding Agency for Schools thought that our proposal offered an excellent opportunity for a successful small- scale PFI and so we tried that route – twice!
The first time the authority, who were then opposed to PFI, made it very clear that the proposal would not be given planning permission. The Funding Agency encouraged us to try again. This time we had the backing of the LA and were just about to agree the terms of the final agreement, when the preferred bidder decided to withdraw from all their PFI projects and the project collapsed.
The funding that had been provided to pay for the consultants that we needed amounted to £350,000 (needless to say this did not include anything extra for the time and effort of staff at the school). In the end we did get the new dining hall through windfall funding from ‘planning gain’. This experience, however, has been put to very good use now that we have foundation status, and currently involved in a PFI project to rebuild the school.
At no time following the election in 1997 did we consider becoming a community school since we wished to maintain the level of autonomy that we had come to enjoy and, I believe, use well. We still have control of our staffing and our plant and, as I believe that a more coordinated approach to admissions is in the best interest of the pupils and their families, we joined the local authority admissions programme.
Changing status from grant maintained to foundation status did help to improve the relationships between the headteachers in the area that had been under considerably strain during the grant-maintained era. This, combined with programmes such as Leading Edge, has further encouraged good partnerships.
At present I don’t believe that I am alone in being uncertain about the opportunities offered by Trust school status. Small local education authorities, such as London boroughs, find it difficult to cover adequately all aspects of their role, and it is possible that groups of schools joining in a trust might help build capacity. Time will tell.
For the present, headteachers will continue to do what they do best – lead schools that provide a safe yet challenging environment in which children can learn to their full potential whatever structure is in place.