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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 July, 2004, 16:58 GMT 17:58 UK
Analysis: school reforms
By Gary Eason
BBC News Online education editor

The government's five-year plan for education in England runs to 110 pages.

Helpful officials have produced a 12-page summary. Curiously, one word in it is repeated at least 20 times: "guarantee".

There are "guarantees" for everyone - pupils, parents, families, teachers, schools, students, universities, employers...

Ignoring the hostages to fortune, I say this is curious because in the full strategy document the word is used on only a handful of separate occasions.

Instead what we have is "goal" and "offer" and "expect".

Expansion

The Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, when he answered journalists' questions about the plans, repeatedly made clear that he could only "encourage" schools - to become specialists or adopt foundation status, for example.

Take the issue of school places. The summary contains a "parent guarantee" of "more places in popular and successful schools".

The actual strategy is to "encourage" and "support" expansion - nobody can force the schools to grow.

Ministers insist there is already no such thing as a "surplus places rule" by which an authority will prevent a popular school from expanding if another locally has empty places.

This may surprise the numerous people who have been e-mailing us, detailing the bewildering complexity of some local admissions arrangements and complaining they cannot get their children into the schools of their choice.

It may surprise head teacher Derek Greenup, who told us how he would have taken another 50 children this year but was forced to turn them away.

And ministers do acknowledge that there is a distinction between a "rule" and what is common "practice".

Specialising

They say their aim is to increase flexibility and make it easier for popular schools to expand, setting a 12-week limit on decisions and with a strong presumption in favour.

Mr Clarke said parental choice was, "rightly", what he called "a genie which is out of the bottle".

And of course there might be consequences, like the growth of one school while others wither for lack of pupils.

"Do I think they will happen? - No," he said.

All schools are expected to specialise in at least one particular curriculum area by 2008.

Given the extra funding the status attracts, they would be daft not to. But again, there is no guarantee that they will.

Likewise, they are urged to apply for foundation status, now made a simple matter of a vote by the governing body.

This means they assume more direct responsibility for their own destinies - but all within tight regulatory constraints.

Why would you?

Foundation schools may decide to do building work without getting local authority agreement - but they cannot raise a loan on the buildings and of course it means they have to put right anything that goes wrong.

They employ their staff - but within the national agreement on pay and conditions.

They administer their own admissions - but within the strict requirements of the national code of practice, and they will not be able to select pupils on ability.

Just how many schools will feel the self-confidence to go down this route, for no very obvious gain, remains to be seen.

Head teachers are not, by nature, shrinking violets and many will no doubt be up for any extra autonomy they can wring out of the system.

The intended result is "independent specialist schools".

Charles Clarke was quizzed about the shameless adoption of the term "independent" - the standard description, indeed the official description, for the private sector in the UK as opposed to schools that are state-run or "maintained".

"I always preferred private and fee-paying schools for those in that sector," he said.

"But the concept of independence I think has not been strongly enough embedded within the maintained sector. We want schools to move forward without feeling constrained."

Collaboration

The Conservatives would say that is a bit rich, coming from a government they accuse of an obsession with central diktats and targets, as typified by the "Stalinist" concept of a five-year plan.

But the government clearly is signalling a change of tone.

Whatever the talk of "guarantees", essentially what it is doing with this new strategy is saying to schools: OK, you asked for greater freedom, you've got it, now get on and improve things.

It is trusting them to do this in a spirit of collaboration not competition.

"Some heads work extremely competitively," Charles Clarke said. "But we are urging collaboration."

No guarantee they will collaborate of course.

His hope is that rather than all the disruptive, excluded pupils ending up in one "sink" school, for example, they will be shared around.

Stronger schools might - no guarantee - form federations to help out the less successful.

And so on.

Trust

The Liberal Democrats launched their own "pupil guarantee" on Thursday, promising smaller classes, fewer tests, first class teachers, modern schools and a "personalised curriculum".

The big difference of course is that they are not running the system at the moment.

Mr Clarke - who is - has told parents and pupils they will all be able to choose from more good and excellent schools in their local community.

He is trusting head teachers and school governors to rise to the challenge of providing them.

As his number two, David Miliband, said during one bit of banter: "Brave decision, minister."




SEE ALSO:
Mixed reaction to Clarke's plan
08 Jul 04  |  Education
School 'houses' improve behaviour
17 May 04  |  Education
Turned away from chosen school
08 Jul 04  |  Education
School funding change looming
07 Jul 04  |  Education
200 city academies promised
28 Jun 04  |  Education
More specialist schools announced
01 Jul 04  |  Education
Parent choice tops Tory package
29 Jun 04  |  Politics


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