"Standards not structures." Of all the catchphrases coined by the Government about education, few make more sense.
For more than 30 years, politicians have talked obsessively of the merits of grammars and comprehensives. For 10, they have argued about the right of schools to opt out of local authority control.
The education White Paper says that schools in the future will be able to choose to belong to one of three categories, foundation, aided or community but insists: "We do not want the mechanisms for choosing to distract attention from the main purpose of raising standards and we assume that the great majority of schools will wish to choose a category which is as close as possible to their existing status."
But the consultation on the paper which ended last week shows that the Government's good intentions may already be running into difficulties and that the English habit of fretting about how schools are organised is proving hard to kick. Regional conferences on the paper have come back repeatedly to the question of structures.
The proposals envisage that the 1,000 or so opted-out schools will become foundation schools, running their own admissions, owning their premises and employing their staff. Church schools would become aided and retain similar powers over admissions and staff and local authority schools would become community with the authority employing staff and dealing with admissions. Admissions for foundation and aided schools, crucial to parents' hopes of securing the right school place for their children, will be decided in consultation with the local authority, with an independent adjudicator to sort out disputes.
Heads, governors and local bureaucrats fear that the plans will perpetuate a pecking order of schools with foundation at the top and community at the bottom. And they worry that parental confusions over admissions will persist as some schools devise their own, different policies and pick the pupils they want.
Already there are signs that both these worries may mean that schools will refuse to slot neatly into the category prescribed for them by the Government. Instead of confining the structures issue to the backburner, the White Paper may unleash a new spell of instability as governors and parents debate where their best interests lie.
Take foundation status. Some local authority secondary schools which voted against grant-maintained status under the previous government may go for the new category. Politically, they feel, foundation status would be more acceptable than its Conservative predecessor. Patrick Sanders, head of Burford School in Oxfordshire, said: "We are waiting to see the fine print, but I would not rule it out. The attraction would be having control of our own buildings and that we would not have to go through various local authority departments when making decisions."
Then there are the voluntary-aided or church schools. Both the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches are concerned that some church schools which are now grant-maintained will choose foundation status and, ultimately, weaken their links with the church. At a local level, some grant-maintained church primary schools point out that if they return to the voluntary- aided fold the number of parent governors will go down from five to two because of the need to include church-appointed governors on the governing body.
Many of the 2,700, mainly primary, voluntary-controlled schools are also indignant about the proposal that they should take foundation status. These are church foundations so the church owns the buildings but they are maintained by the local education authority, unlike voluntary-aided schools which manage their own buildings and contribute 15 per cent towards the cost of their maintenance.
David Barton, chairman of governors at voluntary-controlled Isis middle school in Oxford, said: "A lot of voluntary controlled schools are unhappy about being put into the same category as grant-maintained schools when they have voted year after year against grant-maintained status."
They objected to the idea that they should control their own admissions partly because they believed it encouraged covert selection of pupils. "It's only too easy once you get control over admissions to weed out those families you don't want. There is also an objection to the amount of work it will produce."
The schools would prefer to remain as they are but, if the Government's proposals remain unchanged, some are likely to go for community status. A few may opt to become voluntary-aided.
Faced with the prospect of yet more disruption, some local authorities are digging in their heels. They believe that the only point of foundation status is to create a slightly less uneasy haven for former grant-maintained schools.
Though the Local Government Association has given the idea of foundation schools its grudging approval, 16 local authorities in the South-west have written to David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, saying that the 95 per cent of schools which have not become grant- maintained should remain as they are. In particular, they fear that the proposals will fail to end the admissions free-for-all.
Labour local education authorities in London have voted that foundation status should go, that grant-maintained schools should return to the authority and there should be a moratorium on further changes of school status.
There is no sign that ministers intend to give in. National admissions guidelines, they argue, will ensure that former grant-maintained schools do not continue to pick the strong and reject the weak. One insider said: "Foundation schools were not in the manifesto but they are being treated as if they were."
Mr Blunkett told a London conference on the White Paper: "It is a pity that we have had to pick up the issue of structures, but we are left with what we have inherited not what we would wish to have inherited. I have to find a way through that so that it does not divert all of us from key tasks."
So far, that has not happened. The trouble with creating different types of school is that people believe the differences will buy advantages. As one local authority official put it: "Why own your own premises unless it gives you an edge over the school down the road. Why be your own admissions authority if it doesn't give you an advantage? And if there is no point in the differences, then why have them?"Reuse content