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The end of the comprehensive school
The changes announced in the Government's five-year plan for education - designed to offer parents in England a wider choice of secondary schools for their children - marks the beginning of the end for both comprehensive schools and local education authorities
Why the new emphasis on choice?
Because so many parents in urban areas are desperate to get their children into the over-subscribed, successful comprehensive in their locality but can't get a place. (In rural areas the issue seldom arises as there is usually only one secondary school within driving distance.) It isn't uncommon for there to be ten or more applications for a place in an urban secondary school, with the attendant clutter of waiting lists and provisional offers. At present most local education authorities (LEAs) respond by allocating places on the basis or how close pupils live to a given school and whether they have siblings there already. However, there are some 1,000 comprehensives, redesignated "independent specialist schools" (see box), which are entitled to allocate 10% of their places to children showing particular aptitude for the school's specialism.
How have the politicians responded to this problem?
The Conservatives' solution is to scrap LEA admissions procedures altogether and allow head teachers to decide their own intake, so paving the way for selection by academic ability. (They would also offer parents vouchers worth £5,000 a year to spend at low-cost private schools.) Labour's new plan is an attempt to steal the Tories' thunder by giving popular schools scope to expand and giving them greater autonomy, thus improving standards without 'having to reintroduce academic selection.
How in practice does it propose to achieve that?
By the year 2008, the Government wants every comprehensive in England to have become an "independent specialist" school. The idea is not just to give such schools far greater control over their day-to-day spending, but to urge them to build extra capacity as they get ever more successful and popular. (Since the local council will retain control of capital spending decisions, that may prove easier said than done.) The very best schools will be able to acquire yet more autonomy by becoming "Foundation schools" (known as "super schools" - see box) which can set their own wages (up to £60,000 for the best teachers in shortage subjects) and their own curricula. To allay fears that this is a recipe for letting inner city schools sink into neglect, the plan wants failing schools to be transformed into city academies (see below) which will be backed by private sponsors and given freedom from LEA control.
How will the schools be funded?
That's the big question. The Government envisages that by 2006 every school will be given a guaranteed three-year budget geared to pupil numbers, with each school also guaranteed a minimum increase per pupil per year. Also by 2006, all school spending is to come in the form of Whitehall grants, with council tax playing no part: the LEAs are to be no more than "fiscal postmen", passing on the money from the centre to the schools in their area. The trouble is that none of this solves the conundrum that bedevils the present system of funding: how is it possible to have local autonomy and accountability in a system in which money is allocated according to national priorities.
How does the system work now?
Rhetoric aside, it already is the case that most school funding is routed to schools via local authorities who all share in the massive central grant known as the Revenue Support Grant. The amount a local authority gets to spend on education is determined according to elaborate assessments of its need to spend; and once the LEAs get the money, they in turn are supposed to allocate it to schools in accordance with nationally defined criteria. LEAs also get money from Whitehall's "Standards Fund": such allocations are contingent on meeting government targets, for instance raising the achievement of ethnic minority pupils or improving the use of information technology.
What's wrong with the system at present?
It is based on such a Byzantine mixture of needs indicators, that no one can predict who's going to get what, thus making it impossible for schools and LEAs to plan ahead. The slightest change in one national needs indicator can result in a vast shift of resources. There has been a huge overall increase in education funding (£35bn spent in 1997 has grown to £51bn this year, an increase of 31% per pupil in real terms), yet every year schools somewhere in the country face cuts in their budgets, provoking a public outcry that drowns out the good news. Last year the Government insisted it had increased its school funding by a record £2.7bn, but was forced to admit that at least 500 teachers (the unions claim it was 1,000) had lost their jobs.
Whom does the Government hold responsible for this?
Its whipping boy is the local councils who stand accused of diverting grant money earmarked for schools to other uses (ie care for the elderly, community care for the mentally ill) and of unnecessarily "holding back" a chunk of the education budget to spend ort their own "bureaucracies" and services. In reality local councillors have little room for manoeuvre - national regulations oblige them to pass on most of their funding to the schools. The services they do provide - such as school transport or special needs teachers - are in any case more cost effective when contracted by a single source (the town hall) than by each school 'separately. As for excess local bureaucracy, this is largely generated by the array of Whitehall-imposed initiatives. Last year alone, Whitehall sent 322 circulars to schools.
How will the new system get round such problems?
No one seems sure. The Government, as it admits in the plan, has yet to consult with LEAs and head teachers on how the allocation of grant would work. The basic contradiction remains: local autonomy and guaranteed budgets doesn't accord with an allocation system based on national targeting of outcomes. Until that is addressed the new plan looks more a hope than a reality.
The shape of things to come
Academies are state-maintained independent schools set up with the help of outside sponsors, to replace failing schools in struggling authorities. A private organisation, such as a faith group, puts in £2m, and the Government gives £20m. The private organisation then runs the school outside the LEA's funding control, but still sticks to all the national requirements for curriculum and standards. There are 12 such academies to date, and Labour plans to introduce another 200 over the next five years.
Foundation schools, which replaced grant maintained schools, are those which attain such a high level of performance that they are largely free from local authority supervision. The schools governing body will own the land and buildings and be able to borrow for investment.
Independent specialist schools To qualify as specialist, a school must prove it excels in a certain subject, then raise £50,000 which the Government tops up. Such schools are supposed to use their specialist subject (i.e. sports, IT) to drive up standards across the curriculum. The idea is that if pupils feel good about their school, it will rub off more generally.
17 July 2004 THE WEEK