There are three questions to ask about the proposals in the White Paper :
what are they intended to achieve ?
what would they mean if they were implemented ?
how likely are they to be put into practice ?
What is the White Paper intended to achieve ?
The purpose of the White Paper is to step up the neo-liberal transformation of the school system. According to the then cabinet office secretary John Hutton (now Work and Pensions Minister in place of Blunkett), speaking to the neo-liberal Brookings Institute in Washington in October,
‘We needed to drive greater challenge into the system, and that could not be entirely reliant upon target setting and performance management from the centre. It does involve greater contestability, the opening up of these monolithic structures from across the private, voluntary and social enterprise sector. This has proved to be our biggest political challenge. The expected opposition from the trade unions and the professional interest groups was predictable and it has happened.’ (Guardian 25 October p 12)
‘Contestability’ is the current euphemism for competition. When New Labour came to power it introduced new measures of central control over the school system, believing that Thatcherite marketisation was not a powerful enough motor of change. Now it concludes that state intervention is not enough and that two additional mechanisms of change need to be stepped up.
One is more marketisation in the form of breaking up the LEA system into individual competing schools driven by consumer choice by parents and league tables of performance. Marketisation of course tends to reinforce middle-class advantage, and this is the predictable and intended consequence of the White Paper, cementing Labour’s electoral strategy.
The other, extending the experience of specialist schools and Academies, is external sponsors. This is not privatisation on a for-profit basis, it is the further de-socialisation of the school system on a non-profit market basis. (The for-profit elements remain elsewhere, in the provision of goods and services to schools and LEAs and the implementation of national policy initiatives.)
The White Paper says that
2.5 At the heart of this new vision are Trust schools. Trusts will harness the external support and a success culture, bringing innovative and stronger leadership to the school, improving standards and extending choice. We will encourage all primary and secondary schools to be self-governing and to acquire a Trust.
2.10 To spread innovation and diversity across the whole school system, we will promote the establishment of self-governing Trust schools.
2.11 Trusts will be not-for-profit organisations, able to appoint governors to the school, including - where the Trust wishes - the majority of the governing body, as in existing voluntary aided schools. [...]
2.12 The governing body of any existing primary or secondary school will be able to create its own Trust, or link its school with an existing Trust.
Trusts are non-profit.bodies with charitable status. The Trust policy is not about private companies running schools for profit. (In any case, there wouldn’t be enough profit to make it worthwhile even if it were allowed.)
2.28 All Trusts which hold land and appoint Governors to schools must be charities and will be regulated by the Charity Commission. They will be required to use any income that they receive or generate for their charitable purposes. Trusts cannot receive any income from the schools’ budget.
The government’s belief is that external sponsors will drive change, bringing in business management methods and values, the ‘entrepreneurial instincts of the charitable sector’ (Independent editorial, 26 October p30) and, in the case of religious sponsors, a Christian ethos.
Trusts can appoint a majority of a school’s governing body and thus control the school, but even where the Trust only has minority representation it would clearly exercise influence.
Sponsors could be private companies, the churches and other religious organisations, universities and charitable organisations. Companies which have already expressed an interest are KPMG and Microsoft. Microsoft already sponsors 100 specialist schools. Stephen Uden, head of citizenship for Microsoft UK, has said : ‘Trusts provide opportunities for a much deeper level of business involvement than there is in specialist schools. That doesn’t mean we’ll be telling the school how to run its affairs. Our experience in specialist schools is that they value the time and expertise our staff can give’ (TES 28 October p5). According to Education Secretary Ruth Kelly, some leading research universities have shown an interest (THES 4 November p2). The sponsor does not have to take majority control of the governing body, and it is unlikely that companies like these, and other possible sponsors such as universities, will want more than a minority role on governing bodies.
Another category of Trust sponsors is entrepreneurial schools which want to establish a ‘branded’ chain, exemplified by Thomas Telford school, which already sponsors some 46 specialist schools and 2 Academies. The White Paper encourages federations of schools, and such sponsors are likely to want majority control.
A third category is religious sponsorship, which seems certain to be a big growth area. Religious motivations among headteachers and governors, often coupled with a perception of market advantage, will lead to their seeking Trust status with church or other religious organisation sponsors, and in this case majority control is more likely.
Trust status is an option. The question is, why should schools want to move to Trust status ? Why should a headteacher or a governing body want to hand over control of the school to an external sponsor ?
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, has said that ‘The freedoms being offered in the white paper are largely an illusion’ (Guardian 26 October p12). ‘Schools which are already overloaded with initiatives are unlikely to rush towards trust status, since they can already link with external partners through specialist status and they can increasingly develop the curriculum freedoms they require without any statutory changes’ (Financial Times 26 October p3). As Steve Sinnott, NUT general secretary, pointed out, schools have been free to take up Foundation status, with its enhanced autonomy, since 1997 but few have (Financial Times 25 October p4).
In addition, there is no financial incentive from government. The Conservative government tried to get all secondary schools to opt out of LEAs by offering a substantial bribe of an additional 15% of funding, but even so only 18% of schools opted for grant-maintained status. There is no such extra funding for Trust schools - though Trust sponsors may donate money, as they can already to specialist schools. And the decline in the powers of LEAs has decreased the attraction for schools to distance themselves from them.
However, there is one potentially powerful attraction of Trust status. In a competitive market it may be seen as a key advantage. Some heads and governing bodies will enthusiastically seize the opportunity, others will do so more reluctantly as a result of market pressure. The degree of pressure on schools varies from area to area, depending on a number of factors, including the existing hierarchy of schools, the extent to which parents are able to exercise choice (as a result of geographical factors), whether rolls are falling, and whether schools are in danger of ‘failing’. Though Trust status is optional, the government is rigging this market in the attempt to drive schools to opt for Trust status. Its instruments are Academies and Building Schools for the Future. This is how it works. Local authorities desperately need BSF money to refurbish and rebuild schools. The government is making it conditional on local authorities accepting Academies, and they are acceding, if only because they feel there is no alternative. Academies, hyped by government and with lavishly funded premises and facilities, tend to be heavily over-subscribed and to adopt admissions policies which increase the proportion of middle-class pupils. This is at the expense of neighbouring schools, which come under increased pressure in terms both of falling rolls (and hence funding and perhaps even viability) and position in the local league table of performance (which itself may lead to falling rolls, and perhaps a critical Ofsted inspection).
How can these at risk schools respond ? One obvious way is (perhaps reluctantly) to seek Trust status in an attempt to boost their image. In an area with a small number of secondary schools in the local market and with one, two or even more Academies planned, the pressure on other schools may be irresistible. And it may only need one school to go for Trust status to start a domino effect. (A similar dynamic may lead to more specialist secondary schools choosing to exercise the option to select up to 10%). Whether the aim is conscious or not, the outcome will be to reinforce patterns of social inequality in local school systems.
Will popular schools expand ?
One aspect of increased marketisation would be an increase in supply in response to consumer demand. The White Paper says that popular schools will be able to expand. Again the question is, will it happen ? Some schools undoubtedly will, but my guess is the large majority won’t, either because they can’t - there is no space - or because they won’t want to. What is the incentive ? Many heads and governors will not be attracted by the prospect of a bigger school, and expansion may actually make the school less popular, perhaps by admitting pupils who lower the academic standards which have made it popular.
However, one way for popular schools to expand, which is encouraged in the White Paper, is to take over other schools, forming federations. As we have noted, there are some entrepreneurial or religiously motivated heads and governing bodies who will want to seize this opportunity to create chains of ‘branded’ schools.
Will parental power increase ?
The White Paper claims that
1.35 This will be a system driven by parents doing their best for their children. Where schools and professionals feel themselves accountable as much to parents as to some distant centre. It will mean responding to and encouraging high parental expectations. If local parents demand better performance from their local school, improvement there should be. If local choice is inadequate and parents want more options, then a wider range of good quality alternatives must be made available. If parents want a school to expand to meet demand, it should be allowed to do so quickly and easily. If parents want a new provider to give their school clearer direction and ethos, that should be simple too. And if parents want to open a school, then it should be the job of the local authority to help them make this happen.
But Trust status schools will actually have fewer places for parents than community schools. They will be like existing Foundation schools, and, as the CASE website points out, ‘Currently a community school can have as many as seven elected parent governors while a new foundation school will have only one. The foundation governors would have to include enough parents to make up the total to one third (the minimum in community schools), but these will be appointed not elected.’
The reduction in parent governors in Trust-controlled schools is to be compensated by new Parent Councils in Trust schools where the Trust has a majority on the governing body. But as Margaret Morrissey, press officer for the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, says : ‘I would query how realistic an expectation it is for parents to be free to volunteer to be part of a Parents Council. Parents have always striven for partnership, not power, with teachers and schools.’ (Independent 26 October p5). In any case, their role would be consultative, not decision-making as that of governors is.
Parents will have the power to demand a new school or even to open one as Trust sponsors. It is unlikely this will happen apart from occasional exceptional cases.
In short, as the Guardian editorial concludes about these supposed new rights for parents : ‘it has to be doubted whether they will really work in practice’ (26 October p34).
Blair has said ‘‘We need to see every local authority moving from provider to commissioner, so that the system acquires a local dynamism responsive to the needs of their communities and open to change and new forms of school provision.’ He said that local authority efforts to create equity had resulted in "deadening uniformity", with child centred learning and a rigid adherence to mixed-ability teaching too often failing to meet basic standards.’ (Guardian 25 October p1)
The ‘from provider to commissioner’ policy is not new, it has been government policy since the DfEE paper ’The role of the Local Education Authority in school education’ was published in 2000. Blair’s claims about ‘uniformity’ and mixed ability teaching are just a smokescreen to justify it. LEAs (which will now be abolished as a separate status and simply be known as local authorities) have for some years had to outsource many of their services they provided to schools as a result of enforced delegation of budgets, which has created a profitable market for ‘edubusiness’ companies. However most LEAs have continued to provide services, albeit on a reduced scale, and it is difficult to see how the White Paper will lead to further outsourcing without either more enforced delegation to schools or new legislation.
The White Paper claims to offer more freedom to schools over admissions.
3.22 No one approach towards admissions will work in all circumstances. This is why we want to ensure that all self-governing schools (Foundation, voluntary aided and Trust) are free to use the approach to fair admissions that they think will best meet their local circumstances, as long as it is compatible with the Admissions Code.
The TES in an editorial questions this claim.
‘But what are the freedoms that schools do not already enjoy ? Control over their admissions of the kind grant-maintained schools possessed, Mr Blair suggests. Yet schools will still be subject to an admissions code and the admissions adjudicator. While proclaiming that schools are being set free from local education authorities, ministers are giving councils a new duty to make sure that admissions are fair.’ (28 October p22)
I think the TES is wrong. As Fiona Millar points out, the new admissions code is no safeguard, because it doesn’t prohibit various forms of selection, and in any case is only advisory. (http://education.guardian.co.uk/egweekly/story/0,,1573479,00.html). So councils will coordinate local admissions arrangements but not be able to determine them. We know that a significant minority of schools already break the rules on selection (TES 4 November p10). The White Paper gives the green light to schools to continue to do so, including by adjusting their catchment areas. It suggests that some schools in socially disadvantaged areas might want to introduce banding combined with ‘inner and outer catchment areas’ (3.24). This is very unlikely to result in a more equitable social mix unless, in return, middle-class schools are compelled to accept more poorer pupils, which they aren’t, because the White Paper ‘encourages’ banding but does not make it compulsory. As The Economist rightly predicted, the government would not make banding compulsory because "it won’t want to risk accusations of social engineering and the wrath of vocal middle-class parents." (22 October p31). Instead there is the token gesture to social disadvantage of free bussing.
Will schools will take advantage of this opportunity to exercise more control over their admissions, including if necessary breaking away from agreed LEA systems ? I suspect most schools will not want to take advantage of this, for two reasons. One is that they have a commitment to serving their local area. The other is that they will prefer to leave admissions to local authorities to deal with, as now, because admissions administration is fraught with problems, including appeals. However, undoubtedly some, and perhaps an increasing number, of schools, will try to increase the number of middle class and higher-achieving pupils they attract. Again, it depends on the degree of market pressure in a particular locality, together with the values of heads and governing bodies. In each area there is a critical threshold. Once the proportion of schools ‘playing the market’ reaches it, the pressure on the remaining schools to follow suit becomes very difficult to resist. If there is a big increase in schools adopting their own admissions policies the result is likely to be, as NUT general secretary Steve Sinnott predicts, ‘chaos in admissions and planning gridlock’. It will also deepen the equality gap in the school system at the expense of poorer working class pupils. As Sinnott says, an "obsession with choice ignores the fact that parents operate on a far from level playing field. It is pandering to the pushy middle classes at the expense of children in less advantaged circumstances." (Guardian 25 October p1).
Ruth Kelly, Education Secretary, motivating the White Paper, explained that it was a "historic turning point" which would end half a century of under-achievement and create "truly world-class" schools to meet the challenge of globalisation (Guardian 26 October p12). This must rate as the most stupid thing said by an Education Minister for a long time - and there’s a lot of competition. On the other hand the following judgements may be too complacent. John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, thinks that ‘It will be ignored by headteachers. There has been a lot of noise about not very much’. (TES 28 Oct p4). According to a TES editorial, ’The result will allow schools to take or leave most of the menu on offer’ (28 October p22). And Slater and Shaw, TES journalists, said : ‘A revolution for schools ? Don’t believe the hype’. (28 October p4).
My own view is that it is difficult at this stage to predict the extent to which the key policies in the White Paper are likely to be translated into practice. The consequences, damaging though they will be, may well fall far short of the government’s intentions, and this contradiction would compel the government to consider taking the political risk of imposing by legislation and financial carrots and sticks the neo-liberal reforms which at present it is relying on market pressures to deliver. But the initial response of many to the White Paper is opposition. At its simplest, they see it as a Tory policy. The conditions are favourable for a massive national campaign of action aimed at forcing the government to retreat, at making it pay a big political price if it doesn’t, and at deterring headteachers, governing bodies, local authorities and would-be sponsors from colluding with it by putting the White Paper policies into practice.
13 November 2005