Why opt-out spells cop-out

Quality of education is what matters, says Judith Judd. The rest is mechanics
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DOES IT matter if schools opt out of council control? To hear some politicians talk you would think it was a matter of life and death, at least as important as Britain's opt-out from the European single currency or the social chapter and certainly far more important than a child's chances of nursery schooling or the state of the nation's science laboratories.

The Prime Minister, for example, is convinced that opting out is the key to raising standards. "The liberating effect of independence within the state sector," he argued in a speech in Birmingham last week, "affects the whole atmosphere of the school. Better-motivated staff mean better- motivated pupils. And that means better results." The Labour Party, meantime, has plunged itself into turmoil over the subject - partly because its leader chose to send his own child to an opted-out school. It has finally decided that it will not abolish grant-maintained schools but it will end any financial privileges that the Government gives them.

It has taken a member of John Major's Cabinet to point out the truth: that the whole matter is irrelevant to important questions about education, such as what children learn and how well they learn it. In a memorandum leaked two days after Mr Major's speech, Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, urged colleagues to concentrate more on improving standards and less on the "mechanics" of how schools are organised.

All the evidence suggests that Mrs Shephard is right and the Prime Minister wrong. In 1993, for example, the school inspectors reported on the first three years of opting out. They found that standards in opted-out schools varied as widely as those in council schools. Standards among the youngest pupils were sometimes better than in other schools, perhaps because teachers had higher expectations. But the inspectors concluded that "the quality of teaching in grant-maintained schools is not significantly better or worse" than in other state schools.

Researchers from Warwick University reached similar conclusions: the educational style of schools that opted out was very much like that of those that stayed with their local council.

More recently, the council-funded body, Local Schools Information, produced figures suggesting that, given a disproportionately middle-class intake, the exam results of opted-out schools were below what they should be. In June, the Department for Education and Employment said it would publish figures refuting this claim. The figures are awaited and, in any case, the Department has said that any difference between opted-out schools and the rest would be minimal.

If opting out has had any effect on standards it is because grant-maintained schools have been given extra money. To persuade schools to opt out, the Government has offered extra grants as well as generous capital for buildings. Inspectors noted that the biggest difference between grant- maintained schools and others was extra resources which some had used to recruit more teachers and pay staff higher salaries.

And this is the nub of the matter. The implication of Mrs Shephard's leaked memo is that opting out does not raise standards but that money does. This is what most parents instinctively believe. How is opting out supposed to improve maths teaching? Most parents do not care whether a school opts out or not. They do care if their child is in a class of 35 and has to share textbooks.

Mr Major would argue that opting out does produce more money for improving standards because less is wasted on bureaucracy. But now that most council schools have control over their own budgets, this argument is doubtful. Anything saved at local authority level is probably spent again by the Department and its offshoots in monitoring and financing the grant-maintained schools.

The opting out debate has become a distraction from the more important business of improving schools and teachers. The British have a long history of obsession with what Mrs Shephard calls "mechanics" - an obsession that foreigners do not seem to share. We always want to divideschools into first, second and third class, as though they were old-fashioned trains. For years, people have debated the merits of grammar and secondary modern schools; passions were at their height in the 1960s and 1970s when politicians took no interest in what was taught in schools, how it was taught and who taught it. Since 1979, we have acquired more classes of school. In the name of diversity, the Torieshave added city technology colleges, technology colleges and grant-maintained schools to the surviving grammars and secondary moderns (nowadays called something more tactful), to say nothing of church voluntary-aided schools.

The Labour Party proposes to join in the game, creating three new classes of school: foundation, voluntary and community. All types, in theory, would be equal but some would inevitably be more equal than others.

The persistent illusion that education reform must start by reorganising schools is understandable: it is easier to dream up new categories of school than it is to tackle failing teachers or run-down schools. And politicians are more interested in politics - where power resides, how to get more votes - than they are in education. The 11-plus was abandoned by Conservatives mainly because middle-class voters were no longer prepared to consign their children to secondary moderns. Opting out became a campaigning issue because, once they had disposed of the unions, the Tories wanted local authorities as a new target for attack. The wish to undermine local councils - now almost entirely under Labour or Liberal Democrat control - is behind the latest drive for opting out, which may go as far as legislation to compel all schools to follow that route.

And there certainly should be a debate about whether local democracy has a future and about whether a centralised state should run services like education through quangos full of political appointees. That debate is of huge importance. But it has nothing to do with improving schools or helping children.