New forms of privatisation in the school system and the challenge for local democracy

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In the global neo-liberal education policy market England has been both a major importer, especially from the United States, and an influential exporter of policy to the rest of the world. Now, in the context of the run-up to a general election in Britain, probably in May 2010, the Conservatives have unleashed a set of bold proposals for radically increased autonomy for schools. It is impossible to predict whether the Conservatives, led by David Cameron, will replace Labour under Gordon Brown as the next government. Their lead is small and there may be a hung Parliament, so it is also impossible to predict what agenda for education will emerge, but Conservative ideas are shaping the current debate in England, may continue to do so whatever the outcome of the election, and may also influence policy in other countries.

Let me begin by sketching in the current situation under the Labour government. Its policy for schools has been based on four pillars:
– Centralised control through prescriptive targets and data-driven evaluation
– Increased autonomy for schools within the centrally-mandated policy framework
– New models of school and system leadership and workforce management
– The role of the private sector in public education policy and provision

Of course these themes are not uniquely English: they are the result of intensive international policy borrowing and they take different shapes in different national contexts (including within the United Kingdom: they are much more advanced in England than in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland).

With regard to school autonomy, historically schools in England have had a considerable amount of autonomy within the local authority system. Building on the marketisation reforms of Thatcher, Tony Blair introduced a radical new policy, Academies: public schools (mainly secondary, but some all-through primary-secondary), outside the local authority system, funded directly by government, and owned and run, on a non-profit basis, by private sponsors – multimillionaire philanthropists, private companies, religious organisations – who appoint a majority of the school governing body. Most Academies replace an existing school and are provided with a new building. The Academy takes over ownership of the school site from the local authority, becomes the employer of school staff, and can set its own admissions policy. The model was imported from the United States: Charter schools. The aim is to create 400 Academies, and so far some 200 exist. Academies have been opposed by all the main teacher unions and numerous local campaigns have taken place, but they have rarely been able to stop the government, aided by compliant local authorities, from imposing them. It has provided a revealing insight into how local councils exclude or manage popular participation (Hatcher 2008, 2010).

Academies have been followed more recently by another new category of schools: Trusts, which are only just beginning to come on stream. They are a sort of Academy-lite. Trust schools have sponsors who form a Trust which appoints representatives to the governing body of the school. They may comprise a majority or a minority of governors. The school remains within the local authority, but, like Academies, it takes over ownership of the school premises from the local authority, becomes the employer of school staff, and can set its own admissions policy. Trusts. All schools are being encouraged to become Trusts or Academies. A number of sponsorship organisations are setting up chains of Academies, and Trusts could do the same.

The rationale for Labour’s Academy and Trust policies can be summarised simply as follows: in order to increase the competitiveness of the British economy, student attainment needs to improve, and the involvement of external organisations in running schools can make them more efficient. Employers’ representatives draw an overall negative balance-sheet of 13 years of the Labour government’s education policy, particularly in terms of the level of education of those destined for middle- and lower-level jobs. Richard Lambert, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, recently explained.

The education system is failing pupils from poorer homes and producing exam results which “we ought to be ashamed of”, according to the head of the most powerful group representing business leaders.

In an interview with the Guardian, Richard Lambert, director-general of the CBI, says that money is being wasted in English schools, which have among the most generous government funding in the world but exam results that are beginning to trail behind competitor countries.

The problems are rooted in a “culture of low aspiration” that predates the current government, but Labour has spent too much time “messing around” with the education system and its high spending strategy has been inefficient, he claims.

Lambert said he was voicing concerns because employers were struggling to recruit people with the right skills – even in the recession – and that many organisations had to give remedial classes in the 3Rs to employees. But he said his decision to speak out was also prompted by concerns business leaders have about social ills, such as illiteracy.

“There is an absolutely straight correlation between GCSE results and free school meals, a straight line so the most deprived get the worst results.” (Guardian 31 December 2009)

The Economist (5 December 2009, p.38) made a similar analysis of Labour’s education policies, headed ‘An unacceptable term’s work’. ‘Some marks for effort but academic attainment is shockingly poor’. It noted that Britain educates a smaller proportion of its 15 to 19-year-olds than it did in 1995, unlike the rest of the 30 OECD countries except France, which still has 86% in education, compared to 71% in Britain. The Economist also noted that in the SATs tests at the end of primary school ‘the number of schools where all pupils achieved the minimum standard expected has slumped by a fifth. For the first time since the tests began in 1995, the number of pupils leaving primary school with an acceptable grasp of English fell.’

On this basis the Conservatives, like Labour, have been able to construct a discourse which harmonises the social and economic functions of schooling, allowing the Conservative party to lay claim to the traditional Labour terrain of tackling social inequality in education. As Michael Gove, their shadow secretary of state for education, has said:

‘We already have an education system that is shockingly bad at promoting social mobility and helping the poorest in our society. […] that lack of opportunity for the poorest is, to me, plain immoral, but it is also increasingly economically foolish because we cannot afford to waste any talent. We must maximise the country’s economic firepower.’ (DailyTelegraph 20 February 2009):

The Tory solution

The Tories (i.e. Conservatives) have now announced that if they win the election they will allow all schools, primary as well as secondary, to become Academies. But Academies everywhere is not the only radical proposal by the Tories. They also propose to create at least 220,000 extra school places in new schools funded directly by government and run by alternative providers: private organisations and groups of parents and teachers. This would amount to up to 5000 new schools in a school system in England of nearly 21,000 schools. It is claimed that the combination of parental choice and new providers will in particular raise standards in socially deprived areas (Conservative Party 2010).

The previous Conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major in the 1980s and 1980s, influenced by the neo-liberal argument against state intervention in school provision of, among others, Chubb and Moe (1990) in the US, had promoted market relations in the school system, though within a prescriptive framework of curriculum objectives, performance targets and evaluation. The Labour government of Tony Blair recognised that parental choice of schools was not a powerful enough mechanism to drive reform, and relied instead on even more prescriptive state intervention. (A recent OECD report has confirmed that it is government intervention, not radical free market reforms in state education, that leads to innovation in the classroom (Lubienski 2009).) Initially this led to a rise in test scores, in part at least because teachers became more adept at ‘teaching to the test’, but in the early 2000s it levelled off and the limits of heavily bureaucratic top-down prescriptive reform became increasingly evident, not least to teachers, de-professionalised and demoralised. The new Conservative agenda marks a return to the market model, re-engineered by expanding the supply side in order to animate parental choice and therefore competition between providers, while claiming that they will put an end to Labour’s bureaucratic prescription – the national curriculum will be less detailed and school inspections eased. The Conservatives’ market model draws on models from two other countries: US Charter schools and Swedish ‘free schools’.

There are different types of charter schools. Some are run by community or charitable organisations on a non-profit basis. Of those run on a for-profit basis by private companies, some are operated under management contracts from the school district or state, while others are owned by the companies themselves. One type of charter school is currently finding particular favour by both Conservative and Labour politicians: the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), founded by two teachers in 1994, which now runs the largest chain of charter schools: 82 middle schools in 19 cities in the US, all non-profit.

Swedish independent or ‘free schools’ are non-fee-paying public schools owned and run by a variety of educational providers, ranging from non-profit co-operatives and faith groups to for-profit corporations, and funded by government on a parental voucher basis. Since the mid-90s the number of free schools has risen from 122 to 1,091. The biggest growth sector is private companies running chains of schools for profit, which now represents about 75% of free schools. The largest chain is Kunskapsskolan, ‘Knowledge Schools’, which runs 30 schools. The Swedish system has been strongly praised by Conservative politicians. In England the Sutton Trust is currently planning an academy on the KIPP model (Times 21 December 2009).

The case for the success of Academies in the UK, Charter schools in the US and ‘free schools’ in Sweden has been summarised recently by the New Schools Network (2010), which has been set up recently to promote the Conservative’s plans. I now want to look at those claims in the light of research evidence.

Do Academies raise standards and reduce social disadvantage in education?

There is now sufficient evidence about Academies to show that on average they are no more successful than other schools with comparable intakes. The most recent research study of their performance in GCSE examinations taken at age 16 notes that attainment has risen but that ‘Overall, these changes in GCSE performance in academies relative to matched schools are statistically indistinguishable from one another.’ (Machin and Wilson 2009, p.8). 74 Academies have now taken at least 2 sets of GCSEs, allowing their progress to be monitored. Of these, 24 Academies (32%) saw their results fall between 2008 and 2009, at a time when most schools’ results improved. Some Academies have registered above-average levels of improvement, but the principal factor is that they have admitted a higher proportion of children from better-off families, who are statistically more likely to succeed academically.

Charter schools

According to Bendor et al (2007, p.14), ‘numerous studies have shown that the average charter school performs no better, and in some cases performs slightly worse, than the average public school.’ The most recent large-scale study was published in 2009 by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University: Multiple Choice: Charter school performance in 16 states. It concluded that

17 percent provide superior education opportunities for their students. Nearly half of the charter schools nationwide have results that are no different from the local public school options and over a third, 37 percent, deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their student would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools. (CREDO 2009, p.1)

A study of Philadelphia in 2008 found that ‘students’ average gains attending charter schools are statistically indistinguishable from the gains they experience while at traditional public schools. (Zimmer et al 2008, p.iii).

The Knowledge is Power Program undoubtedly results in students, predominantly from poorer backgrounds, achieving significantly higher than their peers in other schools (Educational Policy Institute 2005). 80% of the students are from low-income families but 85% go on to university (Times Educational Supplement (TES) 19 February 2010). But the principal explanation may be that KIPP’s admission process selects for likely high achievers. Potential parents are rigorously interviewed. Furthermore, some KIPP schools show a high drop-out rate, especially for those students entering the schools with the lowest test scores (Woodworth et al 2008). Richardson (2009) makes the point that advocates claim that KIPP’s success is due to KIPP schools’ freedom from state control, which enables principals to control the budget and the curriculum, select and appoint staff and operate an extended timetable: ten-hour school days with sessions on Saturdays and in the summer holiday, which is 60% more time than other US middle schools. This is a radical departure for US schools, constrained by the school district, but schools in the UK already have this autonomy. Another feature of KIPP schools, according to Knights (TES 26 February 2010) is teacher burn-out, resulting from a working week of 65 hours and the expectation that teachers are in contact with students 24/7.

Swedish ‘free schools’

There have been a number of studies of the effects of the Swedish reform. The most recent study is by Bohlmark and Lindahl (2008), who found evidence of only small positive effects.

We find that an increase in the private school share moderately improves short-term educational outcomes such as 9th grade GPA and the fraction of students who choose an academic high school track. However, we do not find any impact on medium or long-term educational outcomes such as high school GPA, university attainment or years of schooling. We conclude that the first-order short-term effect is too small to yield lasting positive effects. (Bohlmark and Lindahl 2008, p.1)

A study of reading found that students in ‘free schools’ had on average better reading results, but that the explanation was that they had ‘a more advantageous socio-economic background than have students in public schools. Social selection hence characterises independent schools’ (Myrberg and Rosen 2006, p.185). This explanation is confirmed by Per Thulberg, director general of the Swedish National Agency for Education: ‘The students in the new schools, they have in general better standards, but it has to do with their parents, their backgrounds. They come from well-educated families.’ (Guardian Education 9 February 2010). Independent schools have ‘a larger proportion of pupils with parents who have continued in education after upper secondary school.’ (Skolverket 2006, p.17).

One consequence of the advent of ‘free schools’ is greater social segregation between schools. ‘Several previous studies, and statistics, show that choice in the school system has led to a tendency to segregate in terms of pupils’ sociocultural background, performance and ethnic background. (Skolverket 2006, p.51). This confirms Ball’s conclusion from a survey of international research that ‘school choice policies are taken advantage of and primarily work in the interests of middle-class families (Ball 2003, p.37).

Finally, the freedom from political control enjoyed by the Swedish schools is not as great as the Conservatives suggest. They still have to follow the national curriculum, unlike Academies, ‘where it is only a requirement for English, maths, science and information and communications technology’ (Holmlund and McNally 2009, p.21)

The effect on local schools

One argument used by supporters of allowing new schools in order to provide more market competition between schools is that it raises the performance of other schools. In a survey carried out by Skolverket ‘The majority of municipalities with a high proportion of pupils in independent schools consider that relations between independent and municipal schools are largely characterised by competition. (Skolverket 2006, p.32). However, 79% disagreed with the statement “competition with independent compulsory schools in your municipality has contributed to school improvement in compulsory schools in your municipality” (p.26). Similarly, in the US Zimmer et al (2008, p.iii) found ‘no evidence that the district schools located in neighborhoods with the greatest charter competition are performing any better or any worse as a result of the competition.’

Reducing social inequality in education

The Tories propose two strategies to raise standards of attainment of children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds: a return to traditional methods, and additional funding for schools which enrol them.

The Tories claim that increased parental choice will result in a return to traditional methods in schools. A Conservative spokesperson stated that ‘We have always argued that we think that a genuine choice system would lead to more tried and tested teaching methods because that is more popular with parents.’ (TES 25 September 2009). David Cameron, the Conservative leader, has argued that ‘discipline, setting by ability and regular sport’ prevalent in the private sector would flourish in state schools once they were freed from government controls, forcing headteachers to respond to parental demands. (Guardian 9 October 2009). However, contradictorily, the Conservatives do not rely solely on market pressure: they intend also to intervene directly. ‘We will ensure that the primary curriculum is organised around subjects like Maths, Science and History. We will encourage setting…’ (Conservative Party 2010, p.6), and, in Gove’s words, ‘we’ll overhaul exams to get rid of the modules, coursework and political correctness that have driven standards down.’ (Daily Telegraph 20 February 2009).

A return to more formal traditional methods seems likely, far from raising attainment by working-class students, to increase their alienation from school and reinforce patterns of social inequality.

The second strategy is the proposal to introduce a ‘pupil premium’ with the aim of narrowing the educational achievement gap between rich and poor students by attaching greater school funding to those from disadvantaged backgrounds as an incentive for higher-performing schools, often in middle-class areas, to admit more students from poorer families. According to an analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (Chowdry et al 2010), schools are unlikely to actively recruit more disadvantaged pupils as a result of the pupil premium: the premium would need to be very high to sufficiently reduce the disincentive for many schools to attract such pupils, putting at risk their academic attainment and public image. The Conservatives have not yet given a figure, and in fact local authority funding formulas already positively discriminate in favour of socially deprived schools so it would need to be significantly higher. Schools’ ability to select pupils is also limited to some extent by the School Admissions Code. Chowdry et al (2010, p.2) conclude that ‘The pupil premium may lead to a small reduction in covert selection by schools but is unlikely to significantly reduce social segregation.’

Nor is it certain that the pupil premium will provide sufficient incentive for new providers to open ‘free schools’ aimed at poorer working class families. The demand may come largely from middle-class parents seeking to maintain their educational advantage by placing their children in a ‘free school’ rather than a more socially mixed local authority school, in keeping with the pattern of middle class parents benefiting most from parental choice (Ball 2003).

Who would run the Tories’ ‘free schools’?

The New Schools Network claims that at least 200 parent groups and 100 groups of teachers have come forward to set up a school in anticipation of a Tory victory at the general election. Academy sponsors, education groups and private school proprietors have been approached to work with the parent groups. There is no independent verification of these claims, but there are already signs of who will be interested in providing new schools.

One group of around 250 parents which has achieved publicity has been initiated by Toby Young, a journalist, who is proposing to set up the West London Free School (TES 29 January 2010). He describes it as a ‘comprehensive grammar school’, specialising in music, humanities, and classical civilisation, with every student learning Latin up to age 16. Although the school would be formally non-selective, in reality it would be likely to attract mainly children from professional middle-class families, for whom the school offers the kind of cultural capital which is the passport to professional careers. Young is currently in negotiation with Edison Learning, an American schools-for-profit company, and a similar British company, to run his school.

A second category of supporters comprises religious organisations. The Catholic Church has welcomed the opportunity to open up more Catholic schools (TES 29 January 2010). Other religious bodies and individuals, including those holding fundamentalist views, are also likely to want to seize the opportunity, as they have by sponsoring Academies.

However, the most contentious category of providers is for-profit companies. There is a distinction to be made between two ways in which companies could make a profit from running state schools. One is to set them up and own them, as Academies or ‘free schools’, if legislation permitted. But the other way is to manage schools under contract without owning them. Governing bodies could contract out the operation of the school – including teaching – to a private company and the company would be allowed to charge a ‘management fee’. It is important to recognise that this is already permitted, and in fact Edison has been running Turin Grove school in London on that basis since 2007. Parents too could hire a private firm to run a school on their behalf. (Guardian 9 October 2009).

Michael Gove, Conservative shadow secretary of state for education, says that a future Conservative government will not allow schools to be owned and run for profit.

There are over 4,500 charter schools in America of which fewer than 10% are for-profit, so it is empirically false to suggest that this idea can only work in a for-profit system. I’m meeting people every week who want to start new schools and I am not finding that profits are an issue. (Sunday Times 4 October 2009)

But Anders Hultin, the founder of Kuskkappsskolan, recently advised Conservative politicians that ‘Only the profit motive will drive the level of expansion and innovation that education services require’ (Guardian 4 March 2010). He is now CEO of GEMS-UK (Global Education Management Systems), which runs 75 private international schools. Kunskapsskolan itself has recently opened an office in London and become the sponsor of two Academies, presumably positioning itself to move into the for-profit market here when government policy allows. Chris Woodhead, former chief inspector of schools and now chair of the private schools chain Cognita, has called for the Tories to create a genuine market in education, freed from a national curriculum and driven by for-profit companies, because they have both the financial motive and the expertise to create a competitive system, unlike charities and parents’ groups (TES 15 January 2010). And Further Education Colleges have also expressed an interest. A recent report commissioned by the 157 Group of leading FE colleges has argued that colleges should be allowed to convert to companies running a range of business operations including running schools and Academies (TES FE Focus 5 February 2010).

How does Kunskapsskolan make a profit? According to a report by Hazel Danson, an elected officer of the National Union of Teachers in England, after a visit to Sweden in 2009, by employing fewer qualified teachers and cutting the cost of facilities.

The number of qualified teachers in independent schools is a little over 60% compared to 84% in public schools. Kunskapsskolan’s selling point is personalised, web based, independent learning via a ‘knowledge portal’. Students have an individual tutor who they see weekly, for about 15 minutes, to review work and set a program for the next week, some of which will include taught lessons in small groups but much of which is independent study.

Unlike the Academies program, with the promise of a new, shiny building; many of the Swedish independent schools are not in purpose built facilities but converted office spaces. Rather than building a library within the school, they use the local municipal library instead. The same is true for outside space and sports facilities with schools renting space or using local sports centre facilities. Rather than provide specialist teaching areas within each school, students spend a week each term in one of the two, purpose built centres run by Kunskapsskolan for art, DT and cookery. (Danson 2009)

Vocational Academies from age 14

There is a strand in Conservative thinking which aims to offer a direct and specific solution to the complaints of employers and the needs of the economy for technically qualified workers. Kenneth Baker, a previous and influential Conservative secretary of state for education, has won the support of the Labour government for a new type of academy – University Technical Colleges, sponsored by universities, modelled in part on German technical schools and in part on the technical schools initiated in the 1944 Act. They are intended to engage young people from age 14, particularly boys, who are attracted to a more vocationally-oriented education. 12 UTCs are already planned, with the first one opening soon in Birmingham, sponsored by Aston University. Baker proposes one in every town. He explains that:

University technical colleges would have two streams of entry: one for apprentices and one for those who want to obtain other qualifications provided by Edexcel and City & Guilds, and then move on to foundation degrees. From the start of enrolment, at 14, there would be at least one day release a week to work in local companies. (Yorkshire Post 16 August 2008)

Baker explicitly contrasts UTCs with ‘free schools’, arguing that the latter are more appropriate to primary than secondary, because it is very difficult to create a new school, whereas UTCs can be created quickly. One obvious operator would be FE colleges, which are anticipating being able to take students fulltime from age 14.

The impact of Conservative policies on teachers and local authorities

The generalisation of Academies and ‘free schools’ would be outside the local authority system of schools, under which local elected town and county councils have some powers to arrange and manage coherent provision in their areas. Local authorities would be reduced to a residual role, responsible only for the rump of schools which chose not to follow the Conservative agenda but unable to secure any coherent overall local provision. The creation of hundreds of new schools, all chasing the same pupils, would force many existing schools to close down for lack of numbers.

Academies and ‘free schools’ employ their own staff and are free to ignore national and local agreements on the pay and conditions of teachers and other school workers. The consequence, by design, would be a reduction in the power of the national unions and the potential worsening of the pay and conditions of teachers and other school workers.

Will the Conservative programme be implemented?

If the Tory agenda was implemented in full it would signal, in the words of Stephen Ball, one of the leading academic critics of government policy, ‘a process of the dissolution of state schooling. This is the beginning of the end of state schools as we know them.’ (Education Guardian 2 March 2010). However, there are three sets of factors, assuming the Tories win the general election, which may impede its implementation.

One is the likelihood of widespread collective opposition. There is already significant opposition to Labour education policies, led by the campaigns against Academies and SATs. Under the Tories the grounds for opposition will multiply, especially in the context of attacks on pay and conditions. Trade unions and Labour politicians individuals will be less inhibited about attacking the Tories than they have been about opposing the Labour government.

Are the market mechanisms powerful enough?

A second set of factors concerns whether the quasi-market mechanisms are powerful enough to deliver the Tory agenda.

Will schools want to become Academies?

The main incentive at present to become an Academy is the extra money, especially the new building. This is far too expensive to apply to the large increase in Academy numbers the Conservatives envisage, particularly in a period of recession and drastic cuts in social spending. Why then would headteachers and governing bodies want their schools to become Academies? They offer some greater freedom from local authorities, but schools already have substantial freedom, and many schools would prefer to remain part of a local authority, with the support service benefits they provide. Some schools will certainly want to become Academies but it is by no means certain that the majority will without sufficient incentives or penalties.

Will the funding for these ‘free schools’ make them sufficiently attractive for providers seeking to own or manage them for profit?

Edison describe their contract to run one school in London as ‘a good business model’ (Guardian 9 October 2009), but whether it is more than a loss leader remains to be seen.

Will parental choice be a powerful enough driver of market forces?

Attempts to create market forces in the school system are limited by a number of factors. Geography may prevent genuine local circuits of competition. Parents choose schools for a variety of reasons, not solely based on standards of attainment. In the case of over-subscribed schools it is in reality the school that chooses the child.

Tensions and contradictions within Conservative policy

The third set of factors arises from tensions and contradictions within Conservative policy itself.

How will ‘free schools’ be paid for?

Many critics have pointed out that the Tory proposals are not costed and budgeted for. The provision of 220,000 surplus places would be very expensive. Holmlund and McNally (2009 p.21) point out that setting up new schools could be ‘an expensive policy if large capital outlays are required’. The alternative would be, as in ‘free schools’ in Sweden, to use former office buildings or vacant school premises with minimal facilties. In addition there would be the additional running costs of both the new schools and existing schools. ‘The reality that governments will have to support simultaneously the new schools and the older ‘bad’ ones, and that the latter will not exit at an efficient rate, needs to be factored into the expected cost effectiveness of a ‘school creation’ policy.’ (Holmlund and McNally 2009, p.21). The Tories claim it will be paid for by taking £4.5 billion from the Building Schools for the Future budget, a programme to rebuild or renovate all state secondary schools, which would mean that existing schools would be left in an increasingly unsatisfactory condition while ‘free schools’ flourish at their expense. In any case, in the context of an ongoing recession and a huge budget deficit, that programme may be cut, and a hard-pressed Tory Treasury may be reluctant to fund large numbers of unnecessary extra school places.

Will the Conservative programme meet employers’ needs?

We need to remember that the determining imperative of Conservative education policy is economic: to produce more efficiently the future workforce in accordance with employers’ requirements (see for example CBI 2008). The evidence from existing Academies is that they are no more successful than schools with a similar student composition (Machin and Wilson 2009). The generalisation of Academies and ‘free schools’ raises sharply a more fundamental problem: the internal tensions within the Conservative programme between different ideological strands of Conservative thinking which emerged over three decades ago during the education reforms of the Thatcher government. The three strands can be characterised as the ‘free marketeers’, the ‘cultural right’ and the ‘industrial modernisers’ (Jones 1989, 2003). Clearly in David Cameron’s programme today the ‘free marketeers’ are in the ascendancy. Their policies might secure electoral advantage, especially from middle-class voters expecting that a more diverse system would particularly benefit their children, but can the free market school system, without sufficient steering by the state, produce the workforce employers want, suitably skilled, encultured and stratified? The concerns of the ‘cultural right’ are embodied in the return to traditional methods, but their promised imposition by government undermines the notion of school autonomy in the market. The interests of the ‘industrial modernisers’ correspond most closely to those of employers, and are represented most directly by Baker’s University Technical Colleges, but they will only be a small minority among schools unless the providers of ‘free schools’ choose to adopt the model. Furthermore, employers’ interests might be better served, at least for less ‘academic’ students, by adopting ‘progressive’ methods harnessed to vocational ends, rather than by a return to traditional methods. The likely outcome of the election of a Conservative government would seem to be a period of prolonged policy turbulence and the emergence of a incoherent patchwork of diverse and competing types of schools in an even more fragmented and locally unaccountable system.

Resistance and the question of local democracy in the school system

I have referred to the likelihood of widespread opposition if a Conservative government is elected. However, on one issue there is a noticeable absence of an alternative: the Conservatives’ claim that the market – choice of providers, and the theoretical opportunity, including for parents and teachers, to enter the market as a provider – offers more genuine democracy in the school system at the local level than that afforded by membership of school governing bodies or the procedures of local elected local government. The absence of a radical democratic alternative means that the response is, by default, an apparently uncritical defence of school governing bodies, which have parent and community members but no structural relationship of accountability to their constituencies and are becoming increasingly powerless (Ranson and Crouch 2009), and of local councils which, in spite of Labour’s rhetoric about local empowerment and democratic renewal, exclude any meaningful role for participatory democracy.

Labour has recently responded to the Conservative claim with proposals to increase parents’ power, if dissatisfied with their child’s school, by allowing them to vote on whether it should be taken over by a ‘superhead’ employed by one of a small number of government-approved private providers of chains of Academies (24 February 2010). This is merely another form of consumer choice which actually augments the power of the private sector.

However, there is one new Labour model of school governance which points a different way forward: Cooperative Trusts. The first, at Reddish Vale Technology College in Stockport, was opened in March 2008. Eventually 200 are envisaged. The school is governed by a Forum comprising elected representatives of the following constituent groups: school students, parents, staff, community organisations, and local community members. This could represent a step forward from existing governance arrangements provided five principles are adhered to:

– There is a structured two-way relationship of representation and accountability between Forum members and their constituencies.
– The school operates in the context of union-agreed pay and conditions for school staff. (Increasingly under threat from Academies, Trusts and ‘free schools’.)
– The school premises are owned by the local authority. (Unlike Trusts, Academies, and ‘free schools’).
– Teachers and other staff are forbidden from personally profiting from the school’s activities. (Unlike teacher-run ‘free schools’.)
– The school operates in the context of effective democratic planning and accountability by the local authority. (Unlike Academies and ‘free schools’, and unlike current local councils.)

The final point above is crucial because the greater the autonomy at school level the greater will be the differences between schools in the policy decisions they make. This is already the case, even with the current level of centralised government control. It has the potential for both good and bad consequences. The danger is that it will exacerbate social inequalities. But the potential benefits of diversity resulting from local popular participation greatly outweigh the dangers, for two reasons. First, because resisting the present disastrous education policies requires mass popular action combining big national campaigns with local grassroots community activity at school level, and people are more likely to get involved locally if they feel that they can influence policy and make a difference. Second, different approaches in teaching methods, curriculum and internal regimes are necessary in order to challenge social inequality in education, but there is no consensus about what they should be. There will be different and legitimate views about the answers among parents, school students, teachers and the wider community. These debates can’t be resolved in the abstract or by fiat. We need to try out a range of different approaches and learn from practice.

The five principles above provide the basis for judging the Tories’ proposal that teachers could run schools (TES 26 February 2010). While ‘free schools’ should be opposed, the idea that state schools could be run collectively rather than as a hierarchy dominated by a headteacher is one that should be supported, provided that power is not in the hands of teachers alone but is shared with parents, students and the community, as in the Cooperative Trust model. There are also various models from other countries which can be drawn on, and from England’s own experience of early comprehensive schools being run on a democratic basis (Hatcher 2005).

A Local Education Forum

If we accept the case for democratic diversity, how can we prevent it reinforcing social inequalities? At the national level, by a framework of social justice entitlement which would guarantee certain rights and exclude certain discriminatory and oppressive practices. But that isn’t enough: it’s too general to engage with specific policies and practices at the local level. The key to this is radical democratic reforms at the level of local school systems.

The key principle is of a space in each local authority area in which deliberative democracy can take place about education policy. Let us call it a Local Education Forum. This would be a body open to all with an interest in education – parents, teachers, other school workers, school students, governors and citizens – though its decisions might be taken only by elected representatives of its constituents. Its purpose would be to discuss and take positions on all key policy issues. As a minimum the Forum should have the right to access to information and to present proposals to meetings of the city council and its subcommittees and have its views heard and taken account of. The Forum itself could of course expand with subgroups and working groups on specific issues, and hold wider consultative events. The exact relationship of this process of deliberative democracy to the procedures of representative democracy of the local authority – whether the Forum is accepted as a legitimate body by it, or is a demand to be fought for, or is set up on an unofficial basis – depends on the local balance of political forces.

One vital role for the Forum would be to ensure social justice in local area provision. Distinctive policies which a school decided it wanted to pursue would be assessed in terms of their impact on other schools in the area and subject to the approval of the Forum. The Forum would also have the task of developing, perhaps in a two-year cycle, an Education Plan for the local system of schools and colleges, including what mix of pedagogic approaches it would want to see made available.

Of course more democratic schools and local school systems would still be subject to the dictates of government education policies, and there is no guarantee that they would respond to them by embracing progressive or radical alternatives. But the risk of self-managed incorporation is greatly outweighed by the possibility of creating more favourable conditions to challenge the dominant agenda of whichever party is in power and reinvigorate the egalitarian and emancipatory role of the school.

Contact: Richard.Hatcher@bcu.ac.uk

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