Leading Article: A little light from school beacons

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The Independent Online
AN IMPATIENT desire for improvements in our education system is palpable among parents and teachers, and it is considered essential if the British economy is to be competitive in the next century. Kenneth Baker, the then Secretary of State for Education, tapped this angst when he promised the Commons in 1989 that opted-out schools would become 'beacons of excellence'. His successors have kept the faith. Only this week, John Patten gave opted-out schools a bullish endorsement.

So the public expects a great deal of granting schools self-government and freeing them from the control of local authorities. Ministerial rhetoric has led people to believe that creating such grant-maintained schools will raise standards, reduce bureaucracy and hand control to parents. In this light, two government-funded reports published yesterday are disappointing. 'Average, signs of improvement, but had hoped for better' sums up their findings.

The new schools' inspectorate, Ofsted, reports that 'the quality of teaching in grant-maintained schools is not significantly better or worse' than in other state schools. The main difference is that, as pioneers, they have received more generous funding than other schools, enabling them to hire more teachers, redecorate and boost morale. It does not take an educational expert to know that extra cash tends to make for better schools.

A study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, reaches similar conclusions. It finds that, apart from the benefits of preferential funding, 'there is little to indicate that opting out has altered pupils' and parents' experience of schooling'. Nor has there been a revolutionary turnabout, with parents taking control of schools. Rather, the professionals, namely headteachers, have replaced council bureaucrats.

All this sounds much like business as usual, which perhaps is no bad beginning for a radical change. It will disappoint the impatient, who are among the many groups of citizens misled by Mr Baker's emollience. But they should restrain their indignation, for they have not been sold a pup. Rather, the salesmen have been over-optimistic about the benefits and speed of change likely to accrue from schools opting out. A little more honesty from Mr Baker's successors would be helpful.

The development of a grant-maintained sector was aimed at managerial change, dislodging ossified council bureaucracy and creating room for innovation. Such change takes time: the first school opted out less than four years ago. It would be foolish and disruptive to move too quickly, especially at a time when the national curriculum - the main motor for improving standards - is being implemented.

The most valid criticism that can now be levelled at government policy concerns its ambivalence about pushing through its own changes. Only 500 of the 3,900 secondary schools in England and Wales have opted out. Nearly half of all local authorities still have no grant- maintained schools. The Government should intervene to push a sizeable majority into taking the plunge. Otherwise a mish-mash of systems is likely to plague the country, blighting local authority schools and making evaluation difficult. Only when the reform is complete will the public know whether Mr Baker's beacons really shine.