Taking it on trust, by Tash Shifrin

30 Mar 06
Self-governing trust schools are New Labour's latest big idea for education. But confusion still reigns over their structure and how they will be governed in practice. Tash Shifrin investigates

31 March 2006

Self-governing trust schools are New Labour's latest big idea for education. But confusion still reigns over their structure and how they will be governed in practice. Tash Shifrin investigates

Tony Blair says it's his policy. The Conservatives say it's their policy. The most controversial part of the policy doesn't appear at all in the legislation that whipped up a parliamentary storm earlier this month. Confused? Welcome to the strange world of the Education and Inspections Bill.

The Bill survived its second reading – despite a 52-strong Labour rebellion – thanks to the wholehearted support of the Conservative Party, which sees the reforms as echoing its own introduction of grant-maintained schools 'opting out' of local education authority control. However, the debate has raised more questions than it answered about the latest structural form proposed for schools – trust status.

Independent, self-governing trust schools were one of the most contentious proposals to emerge from the education white paper Higher standards, better schools for all. They would be publicly funded but run by businesses, charities or faith groups acting through a trust with charitable status, rather than by LEAs. They would employ their own staff and take ownership of their assets. A single trust could even run a network of schools, setting policy or organising resources centrally.

The initiative slots neatly into the government's public service agenda of choice and diversity of providers, creating a halfway house between 'community schools' – the new term for local authority-run state-funded schools – and the private sector proper. The role of the LEA will become focused on commissioning, rather than provision. It's all very Third Way.

Gordon Brown's Budget statement pledge of a 'long-term aim' to bring spending per state school pupil up to private school levels completed the picture of a new education market. In this, parents will have a choice between schools eventually funded at a similar level, run by the public, the private or – through trusts – the voluntary sector.

Education Secretary Ruth Kelly told MPs the introduction of 'external partners' would also improve schools. 'Schools work best when they have an effective head teacher who gives strong and inspiring leadership. This Bill will build on what we know works. It will give heads the powers they need to forge new partnerships and drive up standards in their schools.

'Therefore, trust school status will allow head teachers to work closely with other schools, with colleges and with external partners such as universities, charities and business foundations, bringing new energy and commitment to the education of pupils at the school.'

But the question of what a trust school would actually be like remains a vexed one – the term 'trust school' does not appear in the Bill. Instead, trust schools are now being described as adding a base – the trust – to the existing legal structure of foundation schools.

Much of the debate has centred on the new position trust schools will have in the education system as a whole. The Bill obliges LEAs to put the creation of new schools out to tender by interested trusts, and gives all schools the right to 'acquire a trust'.

To placate Labour rebels, Kelly was forced to concede that LEAs would still be able to create new community schools, subject to ministerial approval. 'I will never force any school to become a trust school,' she added.

The degree of control by the outside interest is at the crux of the debate. The controversial city academies, set up in inner-city areas to replace 'failing' schools, are seen as the test bed for greater private, voluntary sector and faith group involvement in running schools.

MP Helen Jones, a Labour rebel, says: 'My worry about this is not about having external partners helping schools – many schools already work with external partners. My difficulty is where those outside bodies own and control schools, because they can then influence the curriculum and they own the assets. 'I don't think there's any evidence – there's none that I've seen – that these people are better at running schools. The evidence on the academies so far is very inconclusive.'

MPs are likely to add amendments aimed at preventing trust sponsors appointing the majority of a school's governing body, ensuring that trust schools have a duty to collaborate with other local schools and blocking any increase in selection.

Despite Kelly's pledge of 'very strong safeguards to prevent the acquisition of inappropriate trusts', MPs are also likely to probe how far trusts will be able to vary the curriculum: the teaching of creationism at city academies sponsored by evangelical Christian businessman Sir Peter Vardy's Emmanuel Foundation has brought forward concerns over what independent status can mean in the classroom.

Those lining up to get involved in trusts are waiting to see what emerges. But diversity is already apparent in the level and type of control the would-be 'external partners' would like to see.

Monkseaton Community High School, a 950-pupil specialist language college and a 'pathfinder' for trust schools, has signed memoranda of understanding with software giant Microsoft and the Specialist Schools and Colleges Trust as a first step to becoming a trust school. It also has ties with the Open University.

Head teacher Paul Kelley denies that one of the world's largest corporations is about to get a stranglehold on the way his North Tyneside school is run. Becoming a trust school would be an extension of existing partnership work with the firm, he says.

'You're developing a mechanism that is used to aggregate resource and aggregate expertise towards a goal that's either shared with the private sector or needs private sector input to achieve it.'

Microsoft will provide technology and technical expertise to support and improve learning, he says. 'What we definitely won't have is a governing body with loads of people from Microsoft.' Kelley adds that the legal mechanism of a charitable trust offers protection from manipulation by sponsoring businesses.

Microsoft education relations manager Stephen Uden adds: 'Running schools is not our aspiration at all. That's not how we're intending to get involved. It's not what our competence and expertise is.'

But some organisations are interested in trust status precisely in order to manage schools. Education charity CfBT (the Centre for British Teachers), which already runs education services for young offenders and children excluded from school, is interested in running a network of trust schools.

Chief executive Neil McIntosh says control over the staffing and organisation is crucial. 'Freedom to staff appropriately and manage those staff is fundamental. With the freedom to deploy staff intelligently… you might come up with radically quite different models.' This flexibility would give trust schools the potential to 'scale up excellence', he says. 'The government is procuring a service from independent suppliers. It is generally bad practice in procurement to specify the inputs to too great a degree.'

McIntosh is considering either a local network of schools or a national one, similar to that of the Girls Day School Trust, which runs 25 private secondary schools around the country. A network would offer economies of scale, he suggests. Hard-to-recruit specialist teachers could be shared, while IT policy could be decided centrally.

Management consultancy KPMG, which is already sponsoring a planned city academy, is closely involved in discussions about trust schools. Paul Lawrence, national director of KPMG's education advisory branch, has made presentations on trust schools to the Department for Education and Skills and Number 10.

Whether the company will set up a trust will be a decision for its UK board, he says. But if it did so, possibly in collaboration with a further education college, it would not seek to 'run' schools, Lawrence says. 'Trust schools would have educationalists as their senior management team driving them forward.'

It is the thorny question of trusts' control over the curriculum that interests the Steiner Waldorf Fellowship – the network of private fee-charging schools committed to an educational philosophy integrating movement and arts with science, and emphasising children's spiritual development. The Steiner fellowship is not looking to take over existing state schools but sees trust schools and city academies as possible routes for its private, fee-charging schools to join the free, maintained sector.

The fellowship's advisory co-ordinator, Kevin Avison, says that a Steiner city academy is on the way, with the contract due to be signed in June. 'In academies, we have full control over the curriculum in the sense that independent schools do. It offers the possibility of the school remaining independent but getting state funding. It creates a hybrid in the education system.'

But the Steiner schools are more cautious about trust status – which would mean implementing the national curriculum. It is also unclear how many current LEA schools would take up trust status: indeed, some insiders suggest that the trust policy emerged because the move to academies has been slow.

Ruth Kelly told Parliament she had 'spoken to dozens of schools that are interested in becoming trust schools'. But a Department for Education and Skills list of interested schools and other organisations presents a hazy picture – some of those listed have merely attended a seminar.

A survey by the Association of School and College Leaders found that just 5% of head teachers were considering trust status. General secretary John Dunford says: 'There's very little interest among teachers in the trust schools concept. There are no additional freedoms that are not available to foundation schools.'

Avison issues a warning about successive education policies that create new types of school. 'In the absence of coherence of policy, there's a question about the stability of the system as a whole. It's not clear what the final destination will be. One feels there will be a lot of tampering over the next few years.'

The tampering looks set to begin shortly, as MPs rejoin the fray over just how different the new world of trust schools will be. L

The city academies

As debate rages over trust schools, the government announced it was halfway to its target of creating 200 city academies, with 100 in the pipeline — although only 27 have yet opened.

Their record is mixed. Of the 14 academies that have presented GCSE results, nine have outshone their predecessor schools. But four achieved worse results while another received the same score as the school it replaced. Unity City Academy, in Middlesbrough, was this month 'failed' by Ofsted inspectors for a second time, for 'exceptionally low' results, low attendance rates and poor teaching.

The academies hit the headlines again this month when it emerged that three academy sponsors — Andrew Rosenfeld, Sir David Garrard and Barry Townsley — were among the millionaires who have given huge loans to the Labour Party. The latter two are understood to have been nominated for peerages.


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