By Mike Baker
BBC News education correspondent
Never knowingly under-launched, the government managed to spread out the announcements for Tuesday's schools White Paper for England over an entire week.
There is a huge amount in it.
Some aspects - like the proposals on discipline and the renewed emphasis on pitching lessons to children's individual ability levels - have been widely welcomed.
However, the centre piece - the proposal for a new breed of Trust Schools - has divided the Labour party, infuriated teachers' leaders, and delighted the Conservatives.
The Tories are pleased because they see it as vindication of their "opted-out" or Grant Maintained Schools policy of the late 1980s.
This was introduced under the Thatcher government and was reversed by Labour soon after its election victory in 1997.
The Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, vehemently denies that Trust Schools are the same as Grant Maintained Schools. So what are they and how exactly do they differ?
The White Paper says Trust Schools will be self-governing, independent of local education authorities (LEAs), with greater freedoms over admissions and the curriculum.
The trusts will be not-for-profit organisations that will develop a particular specialism and ethos for the schools.
The government hopes charities, universities and the charitable arms of big companies such as Microsoft will form trusts.
To the cynical, the trusts look like city academies without the £25m price tag
These bodies will not be required to put money into the schools but to offer expertise, advice and direction.
To the cynical, the trusts look like city academies without the £25m price tag.
The key to understanding the Trust Schools lies in the White Paper description of them as "independent state schools".
This is an exact echo of the phrase used by Mrs (now Lady) Thatcher in the 1980s. She had wanted schools that opted-out of local authority control to be called "independent state schools".
In her memoirs, she wrote that the Department for Education "hated" that phrase and had eventually won the battle to use the "bureaucratically flavoured" Grant Maintained Schools.
Even closer parallels with Mr Blair's Trust Schools emerge if you read about Lady Thatcher's aims for Grant Maintained Schools.
She wrote that she wanted a return to selection at opted-out schools, not of the old 11-plus kind but "a development of specialisation and competition so that some schools would become centres of excellence in music, others in technology, others in science, and others in the arts".
Doesn't this sound rather like Labour's specialist schools?
That is not the end of the similarities.
Soon after Grant Maintained Schools had been launched, Prime Minister Thatcher wanted to take the reforms further.
In 1990 a paper written by her education advisor, Lord Griffiths, proposed the transfer of all schools that had not yet opted-out into "the management of special trusts".
This, she added, would mean finally stripping the LEAs of their powers "leaving them with a monitoring and advisory role".
Or, as this week's White Paper puts it, LEAs will no longer run the school system but will become "commissioners of services and champions of the users".
So the philosophy underpinning both Trust Schools and Grant Maintained Schools appears to be very similar: to remove schools from the perceived deadening uniformity of the local authority, to encourage specialism and diversity, and to allow strong head teachers and governors to innovate and respond to parental demand.
Where then do the differences lie?
The government argues:
- Grant Maintained Schools received preferential funding, but Trust Schools will not
- Grant Maintained Schools were a small elite, while Trust Schools will be the norm
- Grant Maintained Schools were often selective, but Trust Schools will retain a comprehensive intake.
While it is certainly true that the vanguard Grant Maintained Schools did receive huge financial advantages as incentives to opt-out, this preferential funding diminished as their numbers grew.
They certainly began as a small elite, but eventually one in five secondary schools was grant maintained.
The government may want all schools to become trusts, but since it sets store by autonomy and local decision-making, it cannot ensure that trusts do not remain a small elite.
As for selection, it was mainly the early pioneers of opting-out that favoured selection of pupils. Most remained comprehensives.
Moreover, there is an inconsistency in the government's thinking. It wants schools to have autonomy and independence. Yet it also wants to forbid them from selecting pupils by ability.
No wonder, then, that the Conservatives cheered loudly
In fact, the great majority of secondary schools do not wish to select pupils by ability (provided they feel neighbouring schools are also playing fair) - yet there is little to stop them doing so if they wish.
After all, the government's draft Code of Practice on Admissions is not mandatory on schools, they need only "have regard to" it.
The trickiest part of the Trust Schools concept to grasp is the idea that they will be "independent" yet will also "remain part of the local authority family of schools".
It is not clear how this could be achieved, unless a single trust were to operate all the schools in the neighbourhood. And if it does that, how different is it from the old LEA?
No wonder, then, that the Conservatives cheered loudly when Ruth Kelly announced the Trust Schools proposal in the House of Commons.
No wonder she faced sustained critical questioning from Labour MPs on Thursday.
Trust Schools and Grant Maintained Schools may not be exactly the same thing, but at times they look remarkably similar.
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