Politicians too quick to dismiss the concept of trust schools

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THE proposal to examine educational trusts for the first time in Scotland highlights the chasm that has opened up in schools policy north and south of the Border.

The plan mooted by East Lothian Council is viewed as radical – even heretical – yet in England it would probably be seen to lack ambition.

Although the proposal was put forward by a Nationalist/Liberal Democrat coalition, it is two comments from Labour politicians that sum up the policy divide most sharply.

On the trust and foundation schools website in England, visitors are greeted with a glowing reference from Labour's schools minister, Vernon Coaker. He says: "The trust model has captured the imagination of schools and organisations who have been inspired to want to be part of this exciting programme, and I know that thousands of children are set to benefit from the innovative approaches being proposed by schools seeking trust status."

In Scotland, Labour's leader at Holyrood, Iain Gray, MSP, rejects the modest East Lothian proposal out of hand. He is unimpressed by the idea of trust schools in his constituency and thinks the idea is out of step with the public mood.

East Lothian's acting director of education, Don Ledingham, who came up with the educational trust proposal, would disagree. He stresses the idea is about giving more power to schools and communities, not handing over council control carte blanche.

An entry on Mr Ledingham's online Learning Log says: "What if we could establish a Community Educational Trust to which was devolved the entire budget for running education within that community? The main change that such a system could introduce is the notion of the schools being 'owned' by their community.

"The practicality of community-based management throws up as many questions as it does answers, including how such schools would relate to their local authority. How would they manage budgets and systems that currently benefit from large-scale procurement? How would the authority ensure that the needs of all children were being met? Despite these, and many other such questions, I'd like to think the potential of such a scheme is worthy of serious consideration and exploration. Even if such an idea comes to nought, it may indeed allow us to create different forms of educational delivery."

Mr Ledingham is arranging a conference for March 2010 to discuss the concept of trust status with a range of interested parties. He is keen to avoid elements of the English model, such as an admissions "free-for-all", which he argues has created "magnet" schools and "sink" schools in close proximity.

In England, the process to form a trust school is twofold. First, any school – primary, secondary and special – can apply to become a foundation school. This means the school's governing body becomes the employer of school staff, takes on ownership of its land and assets and become the admissions authority (within the requirements of the school admissions code).

A foundation school is still maintained by the local education authority.

The English Education and Inspections Act 2006 allows for foundation schools to go one step further and set up a charitable trust. The official website says: "The aim of trust schools is to use the experience, energy and expertise from other schools and professions as a lever to raise standards."

It also says: "It is expected that the majority of new schools will be trust schools."

This last statement embeds the trust model in the English education system – and it is highly unlikely any Conservative government elected next year would ditch the reforms and impose tighter central control. Trust schools are staying in England.

So what can a trust school in England do? It can "manage its own assets, employ its own staff and set its own admissions arrangements" and "choose which partners to work with, for example businesses, business foundations, colleges, universities or community groups".

The trust and foundation schools website stresses that a trust school is not an academy, or an independent school – and that it is not run by private business, even if these are often represented on governing bodies.

However, in a section devoted to "information for partners", a series of benefits are listed, including:

&149 opportunity to be associated with raising educational standards and achievements;

&149 opportunity to engage with potential employees of the future;

&#149 excellent media opportunities associated with supporting education.

Observers will have their own views on whether this opens the door to too much influence for private business in state schools. East Lothian is keen to distance itself from aspects of the English model, but council leader David Berry did not rule out the possibility of private business involvement in the future.

England has also driven forward with specialist schools, with more than 3,000 putting a name to its area of excellence – whether in sport, science, music, languages, engineering, humanities or business and enterprise.

Scotland is not without innovation in this area. Labour set up schools that act as regional or national centres of excellence, such as the Glasgow School of Sport at Bellahouston Academy or the National Centre of Excellence in Traditional Music at Plockton High School in Wester Ross.

Yet these are isolated examples, and none of the main parties is even looking at trust schools. While Labour dismissed the idea out of hand, the SNP government's reaction was to hide behind the cloak of "funding and management of state schools would be a matter for the individual local authority".

The statement given to The Scotsman on Monday concluded: "Ministers have not been approached on the issue of trust schools."

So is this apparent lack of policy thinking in this area damaging the education of Scottish pupils? Eric Wilkinson, Professor of Education at the University of Glasgow, is convinced of it.

He said: "In England, they are pushing ahead with huge innovations and having some success – particularly in London. In Scotland we are still stuck in a mudpool – and undoubtedly, Scotland will start to slip behind unless it embraces new ideas.

"Scottish education is on a downward spiral, and it is vital for our future that we remedy that."

East Lothian Council might not have intended to open up a debate about school structures by proposing the idea of educational trusts, but that has clearly been the effect – and surely it is time that debate started in earnest, across the whole political spectrum.