The trust schools that nobody wanted

Trust schools are central to Tony Blair's education reforms, but the Prime Minister is struggling to get companies interested, and the teachers' unions are implacably opposed. And that was before the cash-for-peerages row. Hilary Wilce reports
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The Independent Online

Tony Blair's big idea for reorganising secondary school education has had Labour backbenchers up in arms about what they see as a return to selection and a two-tier system.

As the Education Bill went on its bumpy passage through the Commons, the fight over admissions to proposed trust schools obscured almost everything else about them. And it has remained a hot issue during the teachers' unions' Easter conference season, with the National Union of Teachers threatening strike action, and critics wondering if companies would be put off as a result of the cash-for-peerages controversy that has hit academies. However, the Prime Minister has been working hard behind the scenes to build backing for the new self-governing school model, hosting meetings for people he hopes will help to get them off the ground. But initial support remains so slow that he has already had to backtrack from calling the schools a "pivotal" change, instead labelling them just an "evolutionary" development.

In fact, interest in the idea of trust schools is so cautious that one participant in a recent Downing Street conference described it as "really just a collection of people who were mildly interested. Some had had previous discussions with Ruth Kelly and so they'd been asked along to see what they could add to it." What wasn't in the air was unqualified enthusiasm, especially from the commercial big-hitters who are needed to inject new money and energy into the revamped schools.

A number of major companies, including EMI and the accountancy group KPMG, have been to Downing Street to talk about trust schools, but most are holding tight to their purse strings. "We don't mind discussing it, but at this stage we may or may not be interested," says a spokesman for BT, while Serco, the international service company that runs the Docklands Light Railway, and which is already heavily involved in managing British schools, remains equally tight-lipped, saying only: "We have made no decision yet on which way to go."

Trust schools will be state-funded schools supported by a charitable trust, and trusts will take many forms. One might be a network of local schools supported by a foundation; another could be a partnership between a school and a big company; a third might consist of schools all over the country being supported by a national body.

The idea for them springs from previous government programmes to develop specialist secondary schools and academies, and to foster links between schools and outside partners. Supporters of the model claim that these partnerships have already proved their worth and the school system will benefit from more of them, but critics say there is no clear evidence of improved performance at these schools and fear the long-term consequences of breaking up a national system and handing over chunks of it to an array of partners.

However, some partners are already working to make it happen. Under an agreement signed earlier this year, Microsoft UK will work with Monkseaton Community High School, in Tyneside, and the Open University, to develop a model of how a trust school might work. Under the three-way deal, Microsoft will offer IT support and business learning opportunities to students, continuing work it already does with the school.

"We already do a lot of stuff with a hundred specialist schools, and a trust model would make it easier to work across a number of schools," says Steve Uden, Microsoft's education relations manager. "It is appealing to us because we definitely want to work with schools nationally, and of course we get something out of it. It's a great way for us to understand how young people use technology."

For the Open University, the appeal is in the chance to continue a 10-year collaboration with Monkseaton, developing higher education modules for use in schools. Professor David Vincent, pro-vice-chancellor for strategy, partnerships and external affairs, says: "The Young Applicants in Schools scheme has enabled many more students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to study at university level and to continue when they finish school. I hope that many more schools will participate in this beacon scheme."

The Government is keen to involve a variety of partners in trusts, including local education authorities, charities, further education colleges and universities, but most people in these sectors are waiting to see how the idea shapes up. "Universities are not going to be putting money into this," says David Melville, vice-chancellor of the University of Kent, "but we are interested because we are interested in working with schools in general."

Last year, the university opened a new campus in Medway, traditionally an area of low educational aspirations, and knows that partnerships are needed to help develop it. "Our interest is in improving the performance of schools and raising expectations. There are many children in primary school capable of going to university, but the system as it stands doesn't encourage them."

Outside agencies that are already involved in running schools see the idea as a logical development. "The model is very like the voluntary controlled and voluntary aided school mode [where the school's buildings and land are often owned by a charitable body]. It's a natural evolution," says David Whittington, head of school development for the Church of England, which already supports 4,700 schools in the UK. Many of those who are interested, he points out, are bodies such as charitable trusts, which are already working in this field.

"If a community school wanted to go for trust status, and wanted our help, it would not mean that that school would have to have a Church of England character," says Whittington. "In fact, we have this sort of arrangement already. Several of our dioceses have service-level agreements with schools.

"The value of having a foundation, we believe, is in having an outside partner. The school knows what it is doing and where it is going and can talk all this through with the trustees to get a clear sense of its vision. And the trust school route is a straightforward route to adopting a foundation.

"It gives enhanced opportunities for young people, and that's what it's all about. Trust schools are a useful tool for doing that when local schools and communities want it."

So far, only a relatively small number of schools have expressed an active interest in the idea. Some of these see it as a chance to get more control over class sizes and the curriculum. Others like the idea of hanging onto the money that is currently used by local education authorities. Still others, such as Thorpe Bay School, in Southend-on-Sea, which is among the worst 10 schools in the country for GCSE performance, see it as a way up from the bottom. It will be working with a local private college to deliver vocational lessons.

Mark Grundy, head of Shireland Language College in the West Midlands, and executive director of George Salter High School in West Bromwich, believes it is "a chance to take a family of schools to another level, and get like-minded schools working closer together. My understanding is that trusts can be as flexible as you want. We would hope to have an external partner, someone with a charitable basis, to act as an external pair of eyes."

Grundy believes that trust schools have got a bad press, with critics focusing only on arguments about selection. "We would never select. We are a community school. I want all the kids in Smethwick and Sandwell to come to us. What we need are more examples of trusts, so that people can see what they're like. Unfortunately, we're not yet far enough along in their evolution to have good illustrations."

Whittington points out that the only people to have raised serious concerns about the idea come from the educational Establishment. But those critics argue there are many legitimate worries about trust schools. Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, points to the growing involvement of fundamentalist Christian groups, fearing that too many people with views to peddle "could undermine the balance of sensitive issues taught."

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, believes that trust schools' genesis has been on "planet politics, not planet education", while Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, argues that it is "all smoke and mirrors. We already have freedoms as heads. You don't have to buy into local authority services if you don't want to."