Within the life of this parliament, Michael Gove's 'reforms' are likely to have three consequences for publicly-funded schools in England. The first is that many, possibly most, individual schools will have been nationalised. The second is that many, perhaps most, local authorities will have lost the ability and even the will to provide important educational services that individual schools or groups of schools are unable themselves to provide and may be increasingly unwilling to pay others to provide. The third is that, in the absence of guaranteed demand, many, perhaps most, of those services will not be replaced because it will not pay schools to buy them or private agencies to supply them.
What is meant by the 'nationalisation' of a school? The Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines to nationalise as “to bring under the control of, to make the property of, the nation.” An academy or a school described as a 'free' school is a form of school, initially created under section 65 of the 2002 Education Act. Under that section, the Secretary of State, who is a member of the government, enters into a funding agreement with a school. Each school with which he has a funding agreement, on which that school then wholly depends, is thereafter annually funded by him at a level he determines. If the Secretary of State, after due notice, decides to stop funding an academy that has been built at the taxpayers' expense, the property that school occupies reverts to the Secretary of State. As an academy is created by, wholly funded by and on property which, on termination of its funding contract, reverts to, the Secretary of State, an academy is a school that has been nationalised. Indeed, it should properly be described as a government school.
Being a government school does not prevent some academies or 'free' schools being or becoming very effective schools. In the legislation, they are termed 'independent' schools.; but what they are obviously not, in plain English, is independent. An independent school is defined in the full OED as a school not funded by central or local government. In defiance of ordinary usage, the definition of an 'independent school' in section 173 of the 2002 Education Act is that it is any school mentioned in the Act which is not maintained by a local authority.
As academies were mentioned earlier in the Act, a school directly funded by a government minister automatically becomes an 'independent' school. Really? While wholly dependent on funding at the discretion of a single individual? With a clause in each funding agreement entitling two civil servants to attend and speak at governors' meetings ? This piece of legislative obfuscation seems to have fooled most of the Press and many school governing bodies but, as a definition of 'independent school' , it is as absurd as defining a horse as ' not a camel'.
Mr Gove's second 'reform', intentionally or otherwise shared by elements in the previous Labour government, has been to ensure that local authorities can no longer carry out their remaining educational functions efficiently. The position schools in England are now in is this. The declared aim of the present Secretary of State is to induce as many schools as possible to sign funding agreements with him so that they become government schools.
As nationalisation in this form is incompatible with local democratic involvement, that predictably leads to suggestions that those functions be carried out by others or, though this is rarely stated or even understood, no longer carried out at all. One important means of undermining a local authority's exercise of its functions has been to misrepresent what those functions are. Those functions, for example, have never included any right to 'control' an individual school, in the sense of being entitled to interfere with its internal organisation. In a school maintained by a local authority the internal organisation of a school is for the head and a school's governing body to deal with under the school's Articles and Instrument of government with which a local authority has to comply.
Briefly, the principal educational functions of a local authority, as described in the Royal Commission on London government in 1960, include the control and management of capital programmes, the year by year management of the revenue budget, control over the disposition and organisation of educational institutions, central negotiations with teachers, the organisation of major central resources, the management of further education and of adult and special education.
The defining characteristic of these local authority educational functions is that, as experience over many years has shown, they cannot be efficiently or economically be managed by individual schools and, in any area, need to be dealt with by a single agency. These requirements for efficient local administration have been systematically eroded.
A local authority cannot manage capital programmes and the revenue costs arising from those programmes efficiently if, for example, Mr Gove persists in siting new government schools wherever it takes his fancy rather than where new school places are needed. Revenue budgets cannot be managed fairly if Mr Gove spends taxpayers' money on inequitably large financial inducements to schools to become government schools.
School by school negotiation with teachers on salary matters predictably leads to instability within and between schools and, where shortages of staff develop and demand exceeds supply, to sharp increases in the cost of salaries. As for other functions, such as school admissions, in 1980, 86% of parental first preferences were successful in the ILEA . In that same area, that percentage now is about 50%. With so many government academies now able to set their own admissions criteria and thereby able to decide which taxpayers children to reject or accept, it is the parents who suffer when their local authority can no longer protect their interests by establishing easy to understand and equitable admission arrangements over a wide area..
The third consequence of 'reforms' which make it increasingly difficult for a local authority's to manage its educational services efficiently is that it has reduced the will as well as the capacity of some local authorities to retain any responsibility for education. So even if a future government wanted to stop intervening in matters where local understanding and a degree of professional expertise is required, in some areas there would by then be no elected body or group of officials to whom those responsibilities could safely be returned. But, even in the most education-averse local authority areas, there will be people, including parents, teachers and interested members of the public, willing to be elected to devote time and energy to decide on how best to meet the educational needs of their area. So, in some areas of the country, it may be necessary to return to the 1870 Education Act and to reintroduce a version of the directly elected School Boards then created. To avoid unbalanced representation on the School Boards, places would need to be reserved for different categories of institution: voluntary aided schools, colleges and so on. Increasingly, some such arrangement may provide the only real prospect of retaining some democratic involvement in the administration of England's publicly-funded education services.
It must be just possible that some latter-day Dunning in the House of Commons will notice and be alarmed by the fact that English schools are now becoming government schools, individually dependent on contracts with the Secretary of State of the day. A motion for debate “that the control of the Secretary of State for Education over individual schools has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished.” might alert some members of parliament with an interest in retaining democratic forms of local government; but it may be too late for that.
Sir Peter Newsam was the Chief Education Officer at the Inner London Education Authority. He is former Chief Schools Adjudicator and former Director of the Institute of Education