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We Need to Talk About the Ownership and Control of Schools

22nd March 2013

Making it Mutual contributor Ron Glatter writes for the Guardian

With the rumpus about forced academies and the news last week that a 27-year-old ex-deputy director of a right-wing think tank with no previous teaching experience is to become the head of a free school in London, the debate about ownership and control in our school system is likely to hot up. The academy model, which Michael Gove has so firmly embraced and which encompasses free schools, is essentially based on the governance structure of private schools. It is a top-down model and allows for minimal engagement on the part of key stakeholders.

But the private schools provide the wrong model. They are mainly responsible to their owners or trustees whereas publicly provided schools have a much wider set of responsibilities including to taxpayers and indeed the whole citizenry, as well as to their local community in the broadest sense. An inclusive governance model is surely needed that reflects these various obligations.

Yet the system as a whole has been moving sharply away from such an inclusive approach. The powers of local government in education have been greatly reduced in spite of international evidence that a strong mediating layer is vital for successful performance. This has given the centre ever greater control to impose its often contentious and unproven changes to school structure, curriculum and assessment across our large and complex system under the cloak of ‘reform’. Academies and other new types of school such as free and studio schools operate on the basis of funding agreements, in effect contracts, made directly with the secretary of state rather than any local arrangements under public law. There is a huge and growing democratic deficit, in fact a crisis of legitimacy.

Meanwhile in another part of the Conservative forest, a completely different approach is being advocated for public services. Francis Maude, Cabinet Office minister, was heavily promoting an impressive new tome by the ‘big society’ think tank, ResPublica, at a launch in the Commons last week. Called ‘Making it Mutual: the ownership revolution that Britain needs’ it consists of no fewer than 40 essays by people from all areas of public life about the strengths and successes of mutual and co-operative forms of organisation. Maude pointed out that people care about what they own: mutuals bring human as well as economic benefits, he said. Of the public services he said that many public sector workers are frustrated by the system they work in, a comment that would surely apply to education in England today. In his foreword to the collection he writes: “The conditions are right for a resurgence of co-operative, mutual and reciprocal activity”. Former Labour cabinet minister Dame Tessa Jowell is another contributor.

The four essays on education foreground the remarkable recent spread of co-operative schools in England, of which there are now more than 450 from a standing start just four years ago and growing rapidly. These are faith-neutral schools which promote an ethos based on co-operative and ethical values and give a voice in governance to all key stakeholder groups – parents and carers, staff, the learners and the local community. They offer a striking alternative to the top-down models of so-called ‘independent state schools’ (academies) and distant and unaccountable academy chains.

The popularity of the co-operative schools model points to the fact that we urgently need an open debate about ownership in publicly-funded schooling. Central government must of course have a role in shaping and monitoring the system but it now holds too many of the cards and as a result the distribution of power has become seriously unbalanced.

This is not new or restricted to the coalition government. More than a decade ago the eminent philosopher Onora O’Neill argued in her acclaimed BBC Reith Lectures that professionals and public servants should be given more scope “to serve the public rather than their paymasters”. In education there is just as much need today to achieve a better balance between upward, lateral and downward accountability.

We need to develop new models that avoid the two extremes of the present set-up: an exaggerated focus on autonomy and competition on the one hand and alienating and unsustainable centralisation on the other. They should surely be models in which:

  • power and control are dispersed rather than concentrated
  • co-operation is placed above competition
  • there is a strong focus on communities and
  • local stakeholders including staff can have a sense of belonging – if not of ownership, then at least of membership.

One trigger for the debate that is needed will be a conference to be held in London in June by the British Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society (BELMAS) on the question Who should own our schools?. This will hopefully lead to a wider recognition that the current arrangements are dysfunctional and need to be reformed. A new settlement is required based on a shared ownership model that emphasises trust and collaboration and incorporates local communities and stakeholders in an inclusive multi-level system.

The Guardian Article

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