A new generation of public schools

A new generation of public schools – good state-funded schools for everyone

The Express
October 26th 2005

In 1997 Tony Blair spent £97m dismantling the system set up by his predecessors whereby maintained or state schools could opt out of local authority control and receive full funding. He is now talking about setting up independent state schools yet no one seems to have asked him what on earth he is talking about; no one is asking the emperor what he has done with his clothes.

I would have been more impressed had he talked about handing schools to parents as new public schools because I am concerned about schools at the bottom of the heap which will not be able to grab every carrot that is offered and will not enjoy proclaiming their own inadequacies in order to get extra funding, especially when it is attitudes that count as much as material things in education.

Parents choose to bring children into the world and are trusted to feed, clothe clean, house and entertain them. They are required by law to ensure that they are educated and, for most of us, that means using state schools.

Schools started so that parents could use others’ expertise in the business of education. In successful schools there is a partnership between parents and teachers to see that parents’ long-term commitment is supported as far as education goes. Schools became institutions of some kind, privately owned or supported by a trust or partnership. Then the state took over the provision of schools for most children and kept control of them.

Independent schools however do not have to accept children whose presence would undermine them. You have only to remember the photographs we saw only last week, of Shanni Naylor, whose face was slashed by a classmate, to see the unacceptable face of social inclusion, the policy by which this government want to ensure that no children miss out on a place in a school. The trouble is that that school might be your child’s school and you would rightly ask why you are expected to entrust it with your youngster. The recent court case involving a boy expelled from Marlborough made very clear the difference between state and independent schools in this respect. (This independent school’s right to expel badly behaved pupils, effectively to protect other pupils from the effects of the boy’s presence, was upheld.)

Tony Blair is right to target local education authorities, which consume a large proportion of the education budget and provide no teaching: they merely interfere. In my three years of state school headship I found them a source of frustration second only to central government. He is also right to challenge teacher unions which have for years complained about changes that, they have claimed, would harm children, only to implement them. Industrial relations in independent schools are generally very much better, largely because staff there are dealing more directly with supportive parents without the intrusion of other bodies.

So how can “independent state schools” ensure that parents are supportive?

Not by obliging parents to send their children, but by being even more radical. Mar. Blair has recently claimed that whenever he looks back on his innovations, he wishes that he had done more. Here is his chance with education, education etc.

Give state schools to local parents, operating as local trusts to run fully- funded public schools. Friends and neighbours would have a salutary effect on parents whose children undermined their local school. To obtain a place, parents would have to be prepared to serve on the governing body, on which places would be allocated by ballot, like jury service.

Reduce the school leaving age to fourteen, not to empty schools, but so that they become more effective and more attractive to youngsters. Many youngsters have part-time jobs. For some of them, a chance to work alongside “real” adults and learn the discipline of work would be much better than being shut up with lots of other disgruntled youngsters. Those that remain out of school and unoccupied should remain the responsibility of parents, who could have their children occupied in school only if they were prepared to support those schools and take responsibility for their children.

Some years ago, I met the head of the Roman Catholic school to which Tony Blair would have sent his children had better places not been available for them elsewhere. He was a very disappointed man, disappointed because this politician would not put his money, or rather his children, where his mouth was. I have long complained that politicians make one set of arrangements for their children and another set for other people’s. Diane Abbot has recently sent her son to an independent school.

Here is their opportunity to put matters to rights – public schools for everyone; even Old Labour might look more kindly on this approach. And so long as the Prime Minister is really radical, who knows, his rhetoric might actually come to mean something; we shall have to see whether this particular emperor has a taste for cross-dressing.

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