Opting Out:
Lessons to be Learnt From the English and Welsh Experience

 

Richard Hatcher & Mike Cole

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One of the central themes of the Education Reform Act of 1988 was the devolution of power to school level. School-based management was introduced, under the name of Local Management of Schools, for all schools. But schools were encouraged to go further and assume grant maintained status by opting out of their local education authority altogether and receiving funding directly from central government. In this way opting out was designed for a very political purpose to destroy the role of elected local government in education and replace it with direct Central Government control, as part of the creation of an education market.

LEAs are the departments of the locally-elected city and county councils responsible for education. They have had a range of statutory powers, and many, especially those led by 'left Labour' councillors in the 1980s, also adopted influential policies on equality issues. For both these reasons the Tory government systematically reduced their powers, and opting-out was one of its strategies for this. LEAs were seen as monopolistic bureaucracies perpetuating inefficiency. They had to be marginalised in order to create a market of competing schools. This affected Tory local authorities as much as Labour, but special hostility was reserved for left Labour councils which were one of the main sources of opposition to the Tory agenda. Most notorious was the Inner London Education Authority, which the government simply abolished.

Some schools, of course, opted out because they wanted to escape the control of their local education authority. In some cases this was because their heads and chairs of governors were committed to the Tory philosophy of market competition, selection and the freedom to disregard LEA equal opportunities initiatives. Others simply wanted to free themselves from the often deadening bureaucracy of local Town Halls.

But the main attraction of opting-out, at a time of savage cuts in education, was the substantial extra money offered them as a bribe by government. The extra money took three forms. First, additional 'transitional grants' were given to schools opting-out. Secondly, GM schools were allocated a sum to compensate for the loss of LEA services. This was calculated in such a way as to give them a larger share than the actual cost. This money was provided by taking it away from the LEA budget for the remaining schools. Thirdly, the most important source of extra funding was grants for capital projects - new laboratories, for example. This was much more generous than the grants made available to LEA schools, and again was at their expense, since it came out of the same global budget.

Ministers initially denied that GM schools received favourable funding, but as the reality became clear they shifted their ground. In 1991 John Major said frankly 'We have made no secret of the fact that grant-maintained schools get preferential treatment in allocating grants to capital expenditure. We look favourably at GM schools in order to encourage the growth of that sector.'

Students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds were disproportionately penalised since GM schools, compared to LEA schools, were more likely to be selective in their intake and had a much lower proportion of students from poor backgrounds.

There are currently some 4000 secondary schools and 20526 primary schools in 117 local education authorities throughout England and Wales. Of these only 658 secondary schools and 504 primary schools have opted-out and gained grant maintained status. Nevertheless, this represented 16% of all students in secondary schools. By the end of the Tory term of office in May 1997 the opting-out bandwagon had virtually come to a halt. The extra money was drying up and the policy had aroused widespread opposition from the large majority of schools and parents or guardians who supported the local education authority system and saw funding from their schools being syphoned off to reward the grant maintained schools. It had become clear that opting out only increased the inequalities existing between schools as they competed for limited funds in the education market place. It also opened up the door to worsening working conditions for teachers and non-teaching staff.

The election of New Labour has brought an end to opting-out, but the new government has not abolished the grant maintained schools entirely. It is hardly surprising, given the general reactionary complexion of New Labour(see Mike Cole and Dave Hill s article, New Labour , Old Policies, Education Australia Issue 37, 1997), that grant maintained schools will retain their position, albeit in the new legal guise of Foundation Schools, but still as a privileged category of schools only partly reintegrated into the local education authority system.

What then are the lessons to be learned from the British experience of opting out? It was an experiment which backfired on the Tories but this is not to say that it will not be championed elsewhere, in another guise, to divide schools against schools. The positive lesson is that in Britain the Tories opened the door to parental choice, expecting them all to vote to leave the local education authority system, but in fact the majority of parents or guardians preferred to stay with it. In dozens of, often bitterly fought, local campaigns parents and guardians across the political spectrum joined with teachers and labour movement activists to oppose opting out. They showed that opting out could be defeated, and, in the course of doing so, new alliances could be built.

The key strategy to oppose and defeat such a blatantly divisive political action is to build a coalition between the appropriate opposition political party or parties and the teacher union or unions, and to make sure that there is the possibility of using the machinery of the party or the union to produce and disseminate high quality, factually accurate, well argued and politically informed publicity at short notice. Fortunately in England and Wales there exists an independent body, The Education Network previously known as Local Schools Information which is funded by subscription from, and trade with, almost every local education authority in the country, which could provide information on opting out and grant maintained status.

As in all campaigns, the key lesson is to watch the other side for dirty tricks, and keep a record, so that your experiences may be of help to others.

Richard Hatcher and Mike Cole are both members of the Hillcole Group of radical Left educators, but write here in a personal capacity.

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