Tags: Headteacher | School Governance | School Governor | School Leadership & Management

Governance expert Joan Sallis expresses her reservations about the White Paper.

Why the question mark? Well I am sorry about that question mark. Blame reading too many White Papers! Indeed if better schools for all were easy to achieve there would be many fewer words written.

And if you shook out all the words in the 120 pages of the latest Labour White Paper and mixed them up, they could easily be re-hashed in the name of the last, or the next, Conservative government and nobody would even notice.

Left right left Indeed one of the interesting things about Tony Blair’s latest brainchild is that when taking credit for past reforms he starts his story not in 1997 but in 1988 when a well entrenched Conservative education minister was also promising quality, accountability, competition and more freedom for schools. The present White Paper says we’ve done phenomenally well but must do better and cites the improvement in literacy and numeracy achieved by the national curriculum, SATs, league tables, open reporting of schools’ results, the freeing of schools from LEA controls and the creation of new kinds of school. But these were all Conservative policies of the 1980s and early ‘90s. How astonishing to find Labour proposing a replay of the ‘set the schools free’ game.

The present White Paper claims that this will also solve the inequalities in the system but, as a school governor, I’m sorry to say such policies have offered no solution yet. Meanwhile a massive upheaval is guaranteed, and I hope governors will not be deceived.

The rhetoric first What the White Paper hopes it is saying is that education standards have improved greatly but too many children are still trapped in underachieving schools where expectations and challenge are low. Many would sadly agree. But what is offered is a proliferation of fresh start schools, which parents can ask for (note the verb) and almost anybody can try their hand at establishing. Community schools will not be perpetuated and they will be given strong encouragement to change to trust status. Other ‘new’ schools could be faith schools, foundation schools or academies (what’s new?) and their founders will be able to appoint a majority on the governing body.

Existing community schools will be strongly persuaded to become trusts, which can also choose to have a majority of promoters as governors. Founders of schools may be private benefactors, businesses, theorists, religious foundations – still running schools on public money, but with no compulsion to establish balanced community governance.

‘Isn’t the price of this less community influence, less local accountability for schools such as our fine system of governance at best provides?’

We are told they will be ‘not for profit’ schools but, while making a profit on the education process itself may be outlawed, there is always scope for pursuing business advantage in schools in less direct ways – use of premises, contracts for supplies and services, etc. The local authority will cease to be a provider but will have new duties, (i) to establish a fair admission code which will apply across the board, (ii) to ensure overall adequate provision and (iii) to maintain standards, though there is no indication of how this is to be achieved.

Parent power?
The big rhetoric is that parents will be empowered through Parent Councils (compulsory where trust schools give founders a majority). This is highlighted and even the words ‘running schools’ are loosely used. But don’t be deceived. The councils will only be advisory and meals and uniform are mentioned as suitable subjects for comment. Give me parent governors every time.

What about the poor? The authors of the White Paper say plainly (thanks for small mercies) that there is no plan to bring back selection (they haven’t abolished it yet!) and to their credit do accept that theoretical choice from a variety of schools often, in practice, benefits the well-to-do, the well-informed and the mobile, leaving the rest to schools where teachers work twice as hard to achieve half as much. The answer according to the White Paper is, firstly, offering greater freedom to establish new schools where there is a demand and, secondly, the introduction of travel concessions to give children from disadvantaged homes a wider choice of school to go to. This at least is a new proposal and it will involve greatly increasing the radius for free travel on a means tested basis. This will be designed, just as an example, to give disadvantaged children a choice of perhaps three secondary schools.

This is undeniably well meant, but think of the additional congestion on roads, multiplied by the proliferation, also planned, of specialist schools, which in themselves lead to non-essential travel. Furthermore, do all parents have the skills to make complex choices in an increasingly complex system? As a governor I have also noticed that anti-social behaviour often arises from travel to and from school.

Think again This is a vast document. There ought to be some kind of prize for reading it. I ask myself what it is all about. Yes, it claims to be about raising standards, but is this a realistic outcome when a variety of interests with unknown motivation become school providers? Isn’t the price of this less community influence, less local accountability for schools such as our fine system of governance at best provides? And are we likely to get as good, never mind better, value for the community’s money without providing for some kind of community control?

I hope these are reasonable questions. For me they are also passionate ones. I believe in the democratic system of governance we have, as did all political parties once upon a time.

This article first appeared in School Governor Update – Nov 2005

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