School Choice & Charters

Plan for New Breed of English Schools Gains Ground

March 14, 2006 6 min read
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British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s proposal last fall to create a new breed of independent, publicly financed schools—an English twist on American charter schools—has made plenty of waves across the Atlantic. But while the initiative has riled many lawmakers in his own Labor Party, it now appears headed for approval by Parliament.

The full House of Commons was scheduled this week to hold extensive debate and a vote on the measure, part of a larger package of school legislation. The main question, it seems, is how many Labor lawmakers will vote against the prime minister.

Much like in the United States, efforts to introduce greater market forces into public education are steadily gaining ground in England, but the path is rarely a smooth one, and the political resistance can be intense.

Mr. Blair, who has long made education a top priority, last fall issued a white paper outlining the proposal for what he calls “trust” schools. He wrote in a foreword that he hoped to “build on the freedoms that schools have increasingly received, but extend them radically.”

The backlash was swift. Many Labor members of Parliament and the teachers’ unions were leery of Mr. Blair’s appetite for market-style changes. There’s long been a sense from the political left that Mr. Blair’s ideas have far too much in common with Conservatives such as former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Mr. Blair mollified some Labor critics with a round of compromises, a tactic that appears to have assured more political support in his party. Although the plan is still generating a lot of angst, some lawmakers and analysts wonder what all the commotion is about.

“What amazes me is, in a sense, out of a pretty modest bill, why so much fuss has been made,” said Barry Sheerman, a Labor MP who chairs the Education and Skills Select Committee in the House of Commons. He suggested that the measure is likely to lead, at most, to only about 200 trust schools in the next several years.

Every School Has Autonomy

Under Mr. Blair’s plan, any English school could become a self-governing trust school. Such a school, which could either convert to trust status or start from scratch, would link up with an external partner, such as a charity, parents’ group, university, or business foundation. A group of schools could also establish a trust with one partner organization.

The trust, a newly created charitable entity, would oversee the individual school or group of schools. If it wished, the trust could name a majority of members to the school’s governing board. Other members would include elected parents and representatives from the local government and the community. The school would receive public funding equal to that of other English schools.

Trust schools would employ their own staff members, control their own assets, including land and buildings, and set their own admissions arrangements in accordance with British law. As a general rule, they would still have to adhere to the national curriculum, national testing and accountability measures, and teacher-pay rules. However, they could apply to the government for additional flexibility in matters such as curriculum and teacher pay.

The government’s white paper argues that trust schools would promote innovation and a wider range of educational approaches, while providing greater choice for parents. “[T]he system will finally be opened up to real parent power,” Mr. Blair said in an Oct. 24 speech, just before the paper was issued. “No one will be able to veto parents’ starting new schools or new providers’ coming in, simply on the basis that there are local surplus places.”

For years, England has been handing more autonomy to schools over matters such as finance and staffing, which previously had been the domain of local education authorities. Those bodies, responsible for the local administration of state-sector services, report to elected representatives on the local council.

“Every school in England has autonomy,” said Michael Barber, a former top education adviser to the prime minister. “All 25,000 have a level of autonomy that principals in the United States would dream about.”

Still, the national government has also been playing a greater role, with the development of a national curriculum, national standards, and increased accountability demands on schools.

One key difference from most existing English schools is that the Blair plan would make trust schools independent of local education authorities.

But that, too, isn’t a huge change, observers say. “They would no longer be linked, but in practice over the last 10 or 15 years, the local education authorities have lost most of their own power,” said Mike Baker, an education correspondent for the British Broadcasting Service.

And the trust schools wouldn’t be the first publicly financed schools to be separate from the local authorities. Hundreds of “foundation” schools, for example, first created under the Thatcher government in the 1980s (and originally called grant-maintained schools), also are separate from the LEAs.

Mr. Blair recently has been promoting another flavor of publicly financed schools called “academies,” 27 of which now exist across England. Those secondary schools, which enjoy an extra degree of autonomy, require an external sponsor, such as a charity or a church group. A sponsor must contribute 10 percent of the costs. Those schools are all created from scratch, and they aim to serve disadvantaged children in urban areas. (“England’s Teacher Unions Fight Blair’s ‘Academies’” April 20, 2005.)

“In many ways, they were the model for trust schools,” Mr. Baker said. “I think the government recognizes they wouldn’t find enough sponsors to do that,” however, he said, noting the great expense involved in establishing the academies. “Hence they came up with a cheaper model,” he said.

Diversity of Schools

Mr. Barber, the former Blair adviser, says the trust schools are part of an agenda that has emphasized large spending increases to build capacity in schools and more accountability demands. A big objective of trust schools, he suggested, is to expand the diversity of school types.

“What the government is trying to do is open up new supply,” he said. “It’s creating, as it has already done in the health service, a quasi-market in education.”

But there’s not much enthusiasm for market forces among many on the political left. “I don’t want a system of schools competing with each other, which is effectively what Blair and the Tories want,” said Neil Lawson, who heads Compass, a self-described democratic-left advocacy group based in London that has rallied against the plan. “This is taking us to the fragmentation of state education, the end of the comprehensive school system.”

For their part, many lawmakers from the opposition Conservative Party have welcomed the trust school plan, even if they view it as a modest step. “It isn’t that radical actually,” said Nick Gibb, the second-ranking Conservative member of Parliament on education. “It’s very similar to something we did when we were in office,” he said, referring to grant-maintained schools.

But he said he believes the leeway granted to trust schools would “lead to higher academic standards.”

Analysts were predicting that perhaps 50 or so of the 353 Labor members in the 646-seat House of Commons would likely vote against the bill. Observers say the key for Mr. Blair, if possible, is to avoid the political embarrassment of needing Conservative votes to pass it.

Alan Dyson, a professor of education at Manchester University, says it’s hard to gauge how much impact the plan would have on education. He suggests that many existing schools might find little reason to take part, since they already have a great deal of autonomy.

“There’s no indication currently that large numbers of schools are going to become trust schools,” he said.

Mr. Barber expects considerable interest, but he says it won’t be automatic. “If they just put the legislation in statute and sit back,” he said, not much may happen. “They’ve got to present the benefits of this in a real positive, progressive way.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 15, 2006 edition of Education Week as Plan for New Breed of English Schools Gains Ground

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