David Halpin, one of the authors of a three-year, government-funded study on opted- out schools, says: 'It is difficult to demonstrate that self-governance by itself is a big enough motor to raise standards. How do you disentangle the effect of the amount of extra money which these schools have received?
'The introduction of the national curriculum also has to be considered. There is a lot of research evidence to show that self-governance is not a necessary condition of school improvement.'
Research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and carried out by Dr Halpin at the University of Warwick with John Fitz from the University of Wales and Sally Power from the University of the West of England, concludes that the new schools have made little difference to pupils' classroom experience and to parental choice. The study, whose findings are published in the current issue of the Policy Studies Institute journal, shows that the Government's policy has preserved existing schools much as they were.
Dr Halpin adds: 'While children acknowledge that their schools are better equipped and decorated, they don't comment about whether the teaching has altered significantly.'
However, Martyn Morris, head of Bacup and Rawtenstall Grammar School in Lancashire, which opted out three and a half years ago, said: 'The quality of education has improved because we are putting more resources into the classroom and we have hired more teachers. Teacher morale is better and that is bound to improve what goes on in the classroom.'
Mr Morris, who became head just before the school voted to opt out, says that during the last five years, the average number of GCSE passes at grades A-C has risen from 5.9 to eight.
Graham Locke, head of Audenshaw High School, a Manchester boys' comprehensive, was more cautious. 'I was head for nine years before we became grant-maintained and I don't think I was doing a bad job before the change. The difference is that we were doing it on limited resources and resources affect the quality of education.
'We have made a conscious effort not to suggest to people that it's a different school. We have always insisted on discipline here, on pupils calling teachers sir and miss. The change is that each child now has his own text book and it is a recent one.'
Both schools have received large amounts for their building programmes since they became grant-maintained: pounds 650,000 for improved toilets and to replace temporary buildings with classrooms at the grammar school, and pounds 855,000 at the comprehensive. Auden shaw has also managed to save pounds 225,000 towards a new sports hall from its generous funding arrangements. Independence from the local authority is another important benefit, say heads. Mr Locke said: 'The governing body is committed to this school. Nobody comes with a political agenda or a local authority agenda.'
Dr Halpin says recruitment is booming at many opted-out schools and that staff morale has improved. 'You may argue that a school like that is likely to be successful. But, to prove that grant-maintained status raises standards, you have to demonstrate that there are not a lot of happy schools run by local authorities.'
The research shows that opted-out schools have not given parents a wider variety of schools from which to choose. They are also less likely to get their first-choice school since the introduction of grant-maintained schools than they were previously.
Nor have opted-out schools helped to deliver education into the hands of the consumer as the Government intended, the study says. The power of local authorities has been replaced by the power of headteachers.
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