This is my second North of England conference, so in the busy and unsafe world of education politics, that makes me practically a veteran. It's a pleasure to be here, and I admire the way the organisers now squeeze the politicians down to an ever-smaller and more concentrated part of the proceedings. Since the thrust of what I have to say is that politicians should be less important in the key decisions taken in our schools, I am entirely relaxed about this.
What I want to do this morning is to set out the route by which schools can become genuinely autonomous institutions. I think there should be a radical cut in the power of Government to interfere in the day-to-day running of our schools. I want this because the decisions that will improve the performance of schools year after year have to be made be heads, teachers, governors and parents.
I used to be an environment spokesman, and then I would make speeches about sustainable development. This is a concept that we should have in the forefront of our minds when considering education. We all want standards to rise, and we all want to see them keep on rising. We will never achieve that with a top-down approach. A sustainable rise in standards, rather than a jump followed by stagnation as we have seen with the National Literacy and Numeracy strategies, needs the full-hearted consent of everyone involved in the schools. Performing seals can be trained to clap as they jump through hoops, but human beings want to be treated with a bit more respect. Heads and teachers deserve to be treated with a lot more respect. If anyone in Government doubted that, then the GTC Survey should drive away the last vestiges of that doubt.
I'm glad to see that the desire to curb central control is not just mine. If Neil Fletcher is here I would like to apologise to him. I am sure he has never been quoted approvingly by a Conservative spokesman before, and I promise it will never happen again. But he was right when he commented recently in the NUT Education Review, that current policy amounted to "The Government saying to everyone outside Whitehall—Hands off the big agenda—top-down planning works—and sadly your job is moving the deck-chairs."
I agree with Neil that there needs to be another way. So let me set one out. Much of what I am about to say derives from a document called 'Partnership with Schools' which is released today. It is a document produced by the LGA Conservative Group's education working party, and I am very grateful to Peter Chalke and his colleagues for all the work they have done—and to the organisations, including teacher unions, business organisations, training bodies, and the Society of Chief education officers, who gave evidence to the working party. This document sets out not only new freedoms for schools, but a new modern role for Local Education Authorities.
The guiding principle, as I have said, is that schools run schools best. By far the biggest influence on the standards set by a school is the effectiveness of the Head. So I want to go much further than the rather half-hearted attempts at decentralisation in existing legislation. The concept of 'earned autonomy' is, by any standards, a nonsense. The phrase itself is an oxymoron. If you are autonomous you cannot have earned it from a higher authority. And in practice the policy of earned autonomy is being implemented a rather arbitrary and centralising way.
So we will replace this with a concept of assumed autonomy. If your school wants to be autonomous, and you have met some transparent criteria about standards in performance, discipline and governance, it will be your choice as a school whether you accept autonomous status. If you do, you will have control over how you spend your money, which will come to you in a direct lump sum, and you will have more freedoms in other key areas.
My intention is that the vast majority of schools would qualify for these freedoms. Obviously those who are seeing poor results, unacceptable disciplinary standards, or problems with general governance will need to be helped to reach the acceptable standard. But these will be the exceptions. One of the key functions of OFSTED, which will continue to undertake inspections, will be to look at these schools to put them back to full health.
Clearly if schools are to be given the choice to be autonomous there is a significant change in the role of the Local Education Authority. Good LEAs will have a role in providing services that schools do not want to manage for themselves. For example, transport in many rural areas, perhaps Special Education Needs, payroll services. I am sure that local authorities that have a good track record in providing support services will continue to find a ready market for their services. Indeed, those who do not have a good track record would find themselves considerably sharpened up if they wished to continue to be significant service providers.
The other key role for LEAs will be monitoring the progress of schools, particularly those that are struggling. There is enough data—at least enough data—demanded of schools now for this to be monitored on a continuous basis without the imposition of any new form-filling. This would allow the LEA to act as an early warning system between OFSTED inspections.
And there is a potential new role for LEAs under our scheme for State Scholarships, which will allow new schools, state-funded but not state-run, to meet the needs of parents who are dissatisfied with the current provision. We want to create a new type of school within the maintained sector, of particular benefit to those in the inner cities who so often are unable to exercise the choices about their children's education which the middle classes take for granted. I believe that an excellent education should be within the reach of everyone regardless of their personal circumstances. Now if we are to allow new bodies, whether voluntary or private, to set up new schools there needs to be a gateway body through which they pass, to check they meet the criteria. This could be an important role for local authorities. Since we would abolish the surplus places rule to enable the creation of these new schools, this role would replace the school planning function at local authority level.
So we will create areas of independence within the maintained sector. This will necessarily entail a simpler funding system. I don't meet anyone who thinks the current system is simple enough to understand, or fair enough to deal justly with the different needs of different areas of the country.
We are working on a national formula for schools, and for the education functions of local authorities. This would remove the need for central Government to set minimum levels of delegation and to ring fence budgets. It will allow parents to compare funding levels in different areas, force Governments to defend the weighting applied to different factors, and allow good local authorities to use savings from administration for improved services. The funding formula per child in a given area would provide a base figure for the State Scholarships—money which would follow the child.
I hope it is clear that I am not, by habit or inclination, a centralist. But I am also not an anarchist. All schools, however independent we can make them, need to demonstrate to the wider community on a continuous basis that they are doing well for their pupils. That is why I see a continuing role for OFSTED both in inspection and in providing advice so that improvement programmes can be set in place in schools with severe problems. The assessment of the progress of improvements will also be a job for OFSTED.
So what we seek is a system of much more independent schools, fulfilling their obligations to their local communities in an open and transparent way, checked regularly by outside bodies, and buying services they need from their preferred supplier. The main drivers for improving standards in these schools would not be central Government targets; it would be the heads and teachers, answerable to parents who will have been given choice in a way that the current system denies them.
In this system the role of Governors will be at least as important as before. Good Governors are crucial to a well-run school. We are looking at the size of current boards of Governors, to see if they are not too large in some cases, and also at the detailed responsibilities of Governors, to see if they are not too onerous. It may well be that a more strategic role is necessary, both to make the job feasible for busy people, and to allow Governors to concentrate on what they should be doing.
There is a thread running through all the proposals I have set out this morning. It is the notion of trust. We all say we want a more responsive school system, which offers excellence in our inner cities as well as the leafy suburbs. But we will never achieve that spread of excellence by dictat from Whitehall. Only if we trust professionals and parents to know what they want and how it can be delivered will we release the latent energies and talents of everyone within our school system.
The ideas I have set out are designed to achieve just that. If we bring them to fruition, we will ensure that no child is left behind, and every child has the chance to fulfil his or her potential. That is what our schools can achieve, and that is what we must achieve if we are to become a successful and civilised community in this country.