Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

A paler shade of white

The government's education white paper was perhaps the most over-hyped policy document of recent years. While the headlines promised unprecedented, irreversible reform, the fine print tells a different story.

The Sunday before the education white paper was released, newspaper headlines screamed: "Schools to be freed from local councils." The prime minister made a speech about autonomous schools and parent power. Conservative MPs waved their order papers. Labour MPs looked glum.

Those who have subsequently read the whole of the white paper must have wondered what all the fuss was about. As so often, the rhetoric and the reality are some distance apart.

Parent power?

The prime minister had promised that the system would be "opened up to real parent power", which he defined as making it easier for parents to replace the head or set up a new school. Parents will also, he said, receive more information, exercise choice, complain more easily, and be more involved in decisions "on issues like the curriculum, school meals and uniform".

"Schools will be accountable not to government at the centre or locally but to parents," he stated. Schools will be required in legislation to provide parents three times a year with information on the progress of their children.

I fail to see why schools should be subjected to more and more legislation on such specifics as the number of times they should send reports to parents.

It seems the government has learned nothing from the legislation compelling governing bodies to produce an annual report and hold an annual meeting for parents. All such legislation has been reduced or repealed eventually - a classic example is the 1988 Education Act containing so much detail on the national curriculum.

Surely the government could give schools the duty to communicate effectively with parents but leave schools to decide how best to do this. There are more than enough ways to hold the school to account.

The white paper is proposing a statutory duty on governing bodies to have regard to the views of parents, but it will be up to individual schools how to do this. This is a much more sensible way to frame legislation.

The Steer committee on behaviour recommends pupil/parent support workers, but while the white paper supports these useful roles with warm words, there is no mention of additional funding to employ them.

The white paper strongly supports the recommendations of the Steer committee and this is very welcome. It is a practical, well thought out report crafted by leading professionals - a fine template for future government reports and a reminder to ministers to rely more on professionals than they have done in the past.

Freedoms for schools?

The prime minister said that "all schools will be able to have academy-style freedoms". However, the only legislation planned for trust schools - apart from introducing yet another category of school - is to allow the trust to appoint the majority of school governors.

All the other freedoms for trust schools, hyped before the white paper, are currently available to foundation schools. In one important respect, trust schools will have less freedom, since they will be obliged to have a parents' council. Other schools will not be compelled to have a parents' council.

We have heard much about greater freedom for secondary schools on admissions, but this is not in the white paper. Proposed new legislation, apart from allowing for banding in admission arrangements, will in fact constrain new or expanded schools from changing their admission arrangements for three years after opening or after the adjudicator has upheld an objection against them.

Nor are there any additional freedoms on accountability, funding, curriculum, or pay and conditions. If a trust school has a poor Ofsted report, the local authority has the same powers to intervene or recommend closure, in which case the school's assets revert to the local authority.

The proposed new schools' commissioner, to be appointed "as a champion for the development of trust schools", is unlikely to be very busy, although this person will try to persuade local authorities to move into a commissioning with local schools. The commissioner will also act as a broker between central and local government in, for example, identifying potential schools as academies.

The end of local authority power?

On the role of local authorities, the prime minister said that they will become the "champions of innovation and diversity" and "champions of pupils and parents".

Far from local authorities being sidelined, their powers will be increased. In particular, their powers of intervention after a poor Ofsted on a school are to be increased, and they will have to consider "the immediate change of headteacher and/or members of the school management team" and "the immediate closure of the school".

The latter may be rhetoric, but the former certainly is not. School leaders are already losing their jobs in this situation, as local authorities seek to demonstrate their 'effectiveness'. Too often, it seems the school might have avoided falling below the Ofsted bar if the local authority had better supported the school at an earlier stage.

The LEA/school code of practice disappears, as does the 'e' from LEA. The code of practice is replaced by the new relationship with schools and local authorities are warned not to trespass on school autonomy.

Nevertheless, new duties for local authorities are added in several parts of the white paper, such as a duty to ensure that schools communicate effectively with parents. Our view is that this is the job of the school improvement partner (SIP) and that local authorities - except where schools have had a bad inspection report - should exercise their accountability role through the SIP.

At a cost to the education budget of £12 million over two years, local authorities will have to employ 'choice advisers', targeting disadvantaged areas to give parents help in choosing a school for their child.

Yet again, this raises expectations that parents can choose schools, when in fact they can only express preferences, and will be of little help when local schools are oversubscribed. More cost, more bureaucracy. The admissions code remains in place.

Increased autonomy?

The white paper adds to the pressure on schools with increased accountability. Schools in special measures have just one year to improve or they will be closed. Schools under a 'notice to improve' have just one year to make progress or they will be placed in special measures.

High-performing schools will, from September 2006, receive 'minimal inspection', while under-performing schools 'could be inspected more frequently'. I would welcome this approach to inspection if I were more confident in the government's definition of high and low performance.

The white paper contains several paragraphs on collaboration and partnership. Schools can already form federations, including secondary schools with feeder primary schools, although it may have escaped the government's notice that, in many areas, the concept of the 'feeder primary school' has effectively disappeared. Formal collaboration between schools and colleges will be encouraged through new legislation, but there are no other measures to promote partnership.

The prime minister offered schools "renewed encouragement for setting by subject ability", but fortunately the white paper makes it clear that "it will be for schools to decide how and when to group and set by ability".

Of considerable benefit to secondary schools will be £335 million over two years, as part of the Dedicated Schools Grant (DSG), to provide additional resources for catch-up classes in mathematics and English at key stage 3. This money will be targeted at schools with the lowest ability intakes and the most pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. The gifted and talented programme is to be expanded to all schools.

Unprecedented freedoms for school leaders?

The white paper claims that the government is giving "unprecedented freedoms and flexibilities to school leaders". Certainly that is not how the in-trays of SHA members have looked this term.

It does acknowledge, however, that school leaders are succeeding as never before, both in developing their own schools and in taking on leadership of the system through, for example, the leadership of groups of schools and federations.

The National College for School Leadership is asked to identify a new group of 'national leaders of education', drawn from those leading the most challenging schools. These heads will work with the college and will have the opportunity to advise ministers on education policy. They will not be short of suitable candidates able and willing to give advice!

The white paper does not offer a clear vision of the future for secondary education, nor does it resolve the contradictions inherent in government education policy at the present time. It shows many signs of compromise resulting from the arguments that seemed to have raged around Whitehall during its gestation period.

The Education Bill expected soon will be a pretty thin document and for that I suppose we should be grateful. There is already quite enough on the agenda of all school leaders at the present time.

By John Dunford, SHA General Secretary

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