In the months before the General Election, David Cameron made much of his intention to allow parents to set-up ‘co-operative schools’. Now that the new, coalition, government is in place, those proposals are being transferred into law – but have strangely mutated along the way.
“All over Britain, all over the world, something is happening which I find really exciting,” said Cameron, when he announced his schools initiative to the Conservative Co-operative Movement. “People are coming together in new forms of collective activity – bespoke organisations designed to tackle entrenched social and economic problems.”
Cameron continued: “We talk a lot about parental involvement in education. We know that if parents have a say in how their school is run, if they feel that their view matters and their wishes count, the school is always better. What better way, then, to give parents direct involvement in their school than to give them ownership of it? To make them not just stakeholders, but shareholders – not of a profit-making company, but of a co-operative built around the needs of local children?”
There were two things that shocked me about Cameron’s speech. One – pre-dating this current phase of touchy-feely post-election politics – was the idea of a Conservative Party leader quoting inspiration (as he did elsewhere in the speech) from the collective actions of Columbian coffee growers.
The second was a philosophical point that I admit is probably more interesting to me than to our new prime minister. How is a school a co-operative? Who are its members – the parents, the pupils, or the teachers? How do you require or engage parents to be involved in running a school? What happens when one generation of parents moves on because their kids have left the school? Worse still, it will probably take so long to set the school up that the parents trying to get it started will have children entering work or university by the time a school is opened!
Others had different concerns. The experience quoted by Cameron was Sweden’s, where there are 100 co-operative schools. But examination by the London School of Economics’ Centre for Economic Performance questioned whether this was at all a model to follow. It is important to note that one of the researchers engaged in the project is from Stockholm University, so should know a few things about the Swedish education system.
Several important points emerged from this study. One of which is that the Swedish system was introduced by a conservative government, not by social democrats. Moreover, the process was to implement a system of competitive freedoms in which public money follows the pupil through vouchers – in the way that UK Conservative Party right-wingers tried, unsuccessfully, to get Thatcher to adopt during the 1980s.
In fact, as the study made clear, most of the schools established in Sweden as a result of this initiative were not ‘co-operatives’, but were actually established by churches and companies using state funding. Similarly, some co-operative school initiatives being established in England (the educational reforms do not apply to Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland) operate in partnership with companies that provide education services.
Another serious problem is that new schools require new school premises. Consequently, in England the latest initiative may be at the expense of the continuation beyond the current financial year of the Building Schools for the Future programme – the multi-billion pound scheme to replace old (often Victorian) schools, with modern buildings that are properly equipped for IT and broadband. In Sweden, many of the start-up schools use disused empty offices. Yet education academics in the UK believe there is a relationship between the quality of the school environment and the ability of children to learn.
What is more, said the LSE study, “importing the Swedish model may not make very much difference to the UK’s educational status quo”. This is because the prevailing educational environment in England today is very different to that in Sweden prior to the reforms. In Sweden, parents had been told where their children had to be educated, so there was no competitive pressure to raise school standards.
The Department for Education (as it is now, once again, called) provides an over-view of the reforms now being introduced in England. It says: “We will promote the reform of schools in order to ensure that new providers can enter the state school system in response to parental demand; that all schools have greater freedom over the curriculum; and that all schools are held properly to account. We will give parents, teachers, charities and local communities the chance to set up new schools, as part of our plans to allow new providers to enter the state school system in response to parental demand.”
The new freedoms that will be allowed also include greater flexibility in setting pay rates and dealing with poor teaching performance. There will be a smaller role for Ofsted, as the schools regulator. The DfE adds: “We will work with faith groups to enable more faith schools and facilitate inclusive admissions policies in as many of these schools as possible.”
So let us summarise what these reforms – along with the parallel freedoms for existing schools to convert to academies – amount to. For a start, they mean that local educational authorities will have a declining role in the schools system – to the point where in future councils may cease to have any involvement. This has been a long-standing Conservative objective, despite the grip the party currently has on local government.
Religious groups – especially those that are well-funded – will have more scope to set-up schools and to decide on how subjects are taught. What does this mean, one wonders, about the teaching of science, particularly evolution v. creationism?
Pay flexibility will mean an end to national pay bargaining, with higher pay rates in the South East and lower pay in the North. This will indirectly lead to a reduction in the importance of the teaching unions – surely a highly desirable outcome for a Conservative government. And while parents will be able to instigate the formation of a new school to operate in competition with an existing school, in practice they are likely to contract-out the administration and management to a private company – consequently privatising much of the education system. Meanwhile the schools budget is being cut by £670m, so there will be more cost pressures than before.
If you are looking for good news, there is one thing. The new schools are now being termed ‘free schools’, instead, apparently, of the name ‘co-operative schools’ – a description that would have risked tarnishing the reputation of the movement. Thank heavens for small mercies.