The nationalisation of schools in England

Peter Newsam's picture
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
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Ian Taylor's picture
Sun, 12/06/2011 - 18:48

I cannot find the quote, but I believe Michael Gove was reported as planning to change the English educational landscape to such an extent that his changes would be impossible to reverse. Sir Peter is alerting us to the fact that this is coming to pass. A minister who intends to make irreversible changes is either very sure of himself, or very foolish, or both.
Personally, looking at his competence record, I would not give Michael Gove a job in a school Senior Leadership team.
We don't seem to value taking advice from people who have years of experience at actually managing educational systems. It appears that anyone can be an expert on education.
I see that the education select committee has invited Jamie Oliver to give them feedback on his "Dream School" experiment. Maybe our politicians should be taking advice from people with in depth experience.
I understand that the Labour Party are reflecting on their policies, and feel that they have plenty of time to develop them before the next election. Sir Peter is telling us that we do not have the luxury of time. Wake up Labour Party. Doing nothing, effectively gives Michael Gove your support. I applaud Sir Peter for his analysis.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 13/06/2011 - 06:19

Thank you, Sir Peter, for your contribution. You have given heavyweight backing to many of the concerns regularly voiced on this site. Your concerns, as you are probably aware, are shared by the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development in their recent Economic Analysis of the UK. They agree that Mr Gove's reforms will increase user choice - this much was trumpeted by Mr Gove in Parliament. But Mr Gove avoided mentioning the concerns:

1 This user choice could impact unfairly on the disadvantaged and the policy needed careful monitoring
2 International evidence on the effects of user choice on educational standards is mixed. In Finland, for example the best performing European country, user choice is limited.

Mr Gove talks about giving "autonomy" to schools - what this really means is that the Secretary of State becomes the ultimate controller. Governing Bodies who are considering converting should keep this in mind and heed your warnings.

Steve Sarsfield's picture
Mon, 13/06/2011 - 10:23

Beware Gove’s Trojan horse!

What at first may appear innocuous and full of curiosity could, ultimately see the over haul and destruction of our LEA’s and the valuable role that they play in serving our state schools.

Just like in Virgil’s epic tale the political right are masquerading as one thing whilst plotting to undermine vital day to day services that are the bread and butter to many parents and pupils.

Free Schools are often depicted as giving parents more choice and greater autonomy but the reality is going to be somewhat different. Every Free School that is set up by Gove will actually erode the rights of parents as it’s the school that gets to do the choosing. Who is going to ensure fair access to schools at a local level? And how stable can the rest of the LEA controlled schools be when the collective services that they rely upon are under constant attack. The U turn that Gove made on LEA funding recently will reappear as his budget is in chaos.

The solution we are constantly being told is in the market place. Good schools will flourish and expand whilst the weaker schools will wither on the vine. Don’t the children in those schools deserve better than this? Who is going to champion their cause? It can only result in a two tier system and we have all seen the consequences of that!

Every teacher, every parent and everyone who has the best interests in ALL our children should wake up to this NOW.

Gove is an autocrat and determined to railroad the country into a centralized education system that he alone controls. Its heads he wins, tails we lose.

Adrian Elliott's picture
Mon, 13/06/2011 - 14:23

I agree whole heartedly with Sir Peter's comments (as a fellow resident of North Yorkshire I think he's more or less bound to talk common sense!) and those from Ian,Janet and Steve .

But there is another aspect of this which really concerns me and that is where the support is going to come from for a school when there is a sudden and overwhelming crisis - a major fire is an obvious example.

In my experience, as a head and deputy in various authorities ,LAs were always excellent in rallying round quickly and supporting schools in these circumstances.

I can't imagine a head who gets a call to say his school is on fire in the middle of the night in, say,Northumberland is going to be able to rely much on civil servants in London.

Of course you could always start to create local support networks and call them something boards, for example?

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