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A simple way to better schools: don’t treat them like hospitals

Simon Jenkins

Go to your room and write out 100 times: a school is not a hospital, a hospital is not a school. Whitehall is a zoo in a fog. Its inhabitants cannot tell camels from kangaroos. Schools, hospitals, trusts, foundations, private finance initiative contracts, partnerships, contestabilities are all the same animals. Life is money and gongs.

The government’s embattled schools bill was originally the love child of Tony Blair and Lord Adonis, with Ruth Kelly as surrogate mother. Its one substantive power — allowing local schools to opt out to become independent trusts — is a classic of structure over substance. The Tories legislated for opting out in 1992 and Labour for city academies. Adonis’s first draft was said to be so badly written it had to be binned. The latest version has united Labour in furious opposition. It is what happens when you put an unelected lord in charge of sensitive social policy.

So here is a get-out-of-jail schools white paper, free of charge:

Clause 1. Her Majesty’s government is proud of British secondary education since 1997 and sees no reason to screw it up all over again.

Clause 2. Her Majesty’s government regards schools as critical in holding communities together, in socialising, training and disciplining young people. That account is best rendered through local education authorities not central government. Ministers see no reason to undermine that accountability.

Clause 3. The government accordingly withdraws its 500 regulations, 350 policy targets, 175 efficiency targets, 700 notes of guidance, 17 plans and 26 grant streams, in addition to its home/school agreements, desirable learning outcomes, social inclusion initiatives, behaviour improvement taskforces and national grids for this and that. They were all a regrettable lapse into madness, chiefly under David Blunkett. They can be burnt.

Clause 4. Admission to secondary school is for local authorities (not schools) to decide. If they wish to have a selective or non-selective transfer it is up to them. Whitehall has made a hash of this for half a century and wants no further part in it. If parents do not like the policy they can protest, vote or move house.

Clause 5. All central grants for education will be based on capitation, biased strongly towards schools in areas of greatest need. The only condition is that 90% of grants must go direct to school budgets. Whitehall will in future confine itself to inspection and exam monitoring. In short, Her Majesty’s government will get out of education’s professional hair.

Such a white paper should ease the predicament of Kelly and David Willetts, her Tory opposite number, who were both left squirming on Friday at the very mention of selection. British politicians simply cannot give straight answers to questions on this subject. Labour and Tories alike want to seem in favour of special schools for middle-class parents without supporting formal 11-plus selection (which might reject those same parents). David Cameron even wants grammar schools for some and “ comprehensives” for the rest. This is brainless.

Publicly funded schools belong to their localities, responding to the demands made of them by the vast majority of parents who use them. They are part of the communal glue, like churches, sports and social clubs. Local people pay for them and local children go to them. As such they will reflect local class division, but they should not themselves create such division for reasons of social engineering, least of all by selection at the age of 11.

Propinquity will always be the chief criterion for school access. Rich people will always live near smart schools. That is life. The job of the state is to ensure that at least poor areas have rich schools.

Hospitals are not schools. A hospital visit is not seven years of social conditioning. It is a place where people go to get well. While a national school service is political nonsense a national hospital service is more a question of organisation.

When Blair derided the Tories in 2000 by promising to increase National Health Service spending from 5.7% of GDP to the European average of 8.4% within five years it was like an Indian tribe burning gold to scare its enemies. Great piles of cash were tipped into hospital courtyards and set on fire.

Staff were hired and salaries inflated by 30% in two years. A league table culture rewarded trusts that spent fastest on waiting lists. Grand, heavily indebted hospitals were planned, wiping out the most loved feature of the NHS, local cottage hospitals. There is hardly a community in Britain that has not suffered a heart-wrenching closure.

The NHS under Gordon Brown has been like an 18th-century aristocrat on a binge. Some £6 billion has been borrowed from the City, covering more than 90% of NHS construction. Repayments as high as £100m a year per hospital are now falling due and threatening bankruptcy. In London the St Mary’s scheme has collapsed and Whitehall has felt obliged to call in the £1.2 billion Barts/Royal London scheme. PFI looked great in yesterday’s manifesto. Today comes the idiot hangover.

Government treats schools and hospitals as if they were identical national services. Yet it cannot even agree on how to run them. For its part Downing Street wants all such institutions to be independent trusts with their own governors and budgets, free to sell their services in the market.

Schools should escape local control, bid for the best pupils and form companies to run other schools. No matter that central government has spent 10 years inducing them to do this and failed. Just 40 out of 3,400 state secondary schools have preferred central to local sponsorship. The reason, I am sure, is that most are happy to be local institutions, not the playthings of some Blairite gong-master.

Downing Street’s ambitions are identical for hospitals. It wants them to compete with each other via a £6.2 billion national “choose and book” computer. Each will be “paid by results” on a fixed operations tariff. Patients and ambulances will race round the country in search of the best operation. The objective is that the weakest hospital, and presumably the slowest patient, goes to the wall.

These ways of running institutions have failed to gain any Whitehall traction because the Treasury hates them, and with reason. Schools and hospitals are not widget factories. They cannot expand and contract overnight in response to demand. Expensive staff cannot be hired and fired. Investment must be planned and debt serviced by a secure revenue stream. Brown’s immuring of the public sector in debt has been a massive exercise in control. Pupils and patients cannot be left to choose where to go. Public money is at risk.

This conflict between institutional freedom and efficiency is as old as Thatcherism. Downing Street is for the free market and the Treasury is for dirigisme. Since the taxpayer is involved, dirigisme wins. That is why Alan Milburn had to resign over hospitals and Estelle Morris over schools. Nor is that all. Control wins not just for reasons of efficiency. Common standards, like equity in access, are expected of public services. The public will not accept variable standards in schools or hospitals, at least when central government is in charge.

The only escape from this dirigisme is into decentralisation. Here the Downing Street model has more purchase. A general hospital cannot be a player in the open market. It must have a secure income. But that does not require it to be a government department. It can subscribe to a planned NHS and yet be governed as a private charity or even private company. Hospitals are run that way across most of Europe. The challenge is organisational not political.

In the case of schools localism is essential. Bringing them under Whitehall offers only bureaucratic chaos. Close a local school and the heart goes out of a community. These must be secure local institutions, whether administered by counties, parishes or charities. Charles Clarke as education secretary accepted that all schools must subscribe to a local “five-year plan”, in which buildings and teaching capacity were set against forecast demand. Admission to such schools will always be geographical, and as such a possible source of social tension. What is crucial is that such tension be resolved by communities themselves.

Schools are not hospitals. Hospitals are not schools. But both are crucial institutions of the welfare state. How little British politics understands them.