Alison Wolf

November 25, 2005

New Labour's proposal that universities spend precious time and funds operating 'trust schools' is a very odd notion

Why would a university run a school? What reasons could it have for diverting senior management's attention, staff time, let alone hard cash, in that direction?

Universities used to run examination boards, but that was because they wanted matriculation examinations to select candidates. They try to run their investments efficiently and make money from their estates.

(In China, not only universities but also schools often run restaurants on their properties, which does wonders for the staff's school dinners.) But run a normal primary or secondary school nearby?

I ask because the Government seems to think it desirable and feasible. Its recent White Paper on education promotes "trust schools", which are to be "independent state schools" outside local authority control but with the normal national curriculum, testing regime and pay scales applying. It also states: "We would like to see universities setting up Trusts." This is a very odd notion.

Universities may be charitable institutions but they are not grant-making bodies. You can understand why a rich individual or company might put money into a school as a charitable gesture that also carries kudos. The London livery companies, such as the Haberdashers and the Mercers, have been giving money to schools for centuries. But for universities, charity really does begin at home, notably with bursaries and fee waivers for their own students.

Some universities have responded favourably (at least in principle), but if I were the Government I wouldn't bank too much on their staying power.

Individuals' desire to do something for the public good delivers results only as long as that individual stays in office. Long term, institutions will carry on with an activity only if it also serves their own interests.

Under current policies, I cannot see how it can be worthwhile for any "selective" university to get seriously involved with a local school. The only concrete return is pleasing the current Government.

For universities that are actively recruiting and whose students are overwhelmingly local, one can muster a better argument. The "postcode allocation" means that universities get more money, as part of their Higher Education Funding Council for England block grant, the more they recruit from disadvantaged wards. If involvement with a local school means not only more such students, but also students who are less likely to drop out, there could be benefits over and above the moral ones. But the one certainty in university life is that government funding formulas and policies change by the year, so the arithmetic may work only in the short term. There is, in fact, one good reason why a university might run a school, but it would not be on the White Paper's terms. The few schools that modern universities have established are commonly known as "laboratory schools". As the name indicates, they provide an environment in which to try out different approaches to teaching and learning. The most famous are those of the University of Chicago, founded by the great educationist John Dewey. They thrive still, but as fee-paying establishments. Many, if not most, of the US's other lab schools were set up as part of the public school system, to provide trainees with a practical training environment and the faculty with the opportunity to experiment.

Parents love them. Illinois' highly innovative and academically selective "Uni High" is one of the best-known schools in the country. Indiana, which funds a lab school as part of the Ball State University teacher-training programme, allocates its sought-after places through a state-wide lottery.

However, as car ownership and improved public transport have removed one argument for having a school on campus, close to teacher trainees, many lab schools have found it harder to justify public funding.

The one such school I know of in the UK, at Jordanhill in Glasgow, was closed as a lab school by the council, although it was saved as a school by organised parent power. In 2002, Australia opened what must be one of the planet's newest lab schools. The Science and Mathematics School is publicly funded and located on Flinders University campus. It is a visionary response to the crisis in maths and science teaching evident in falling numbers of university applications. It is able to operate with a flexible, constantly changing curriculum because South Australia's Department of Education encourages this and runs an exam system with the same flexibility. That sort of school might indeed be something one of our universities would and should want to run. But with our national curriculum, rigidly centralised testing and heavy-touch inspectorate, none of which the White Paper seriously challenges? Dream on.

Alison Wolf is Sir Roy Griffiths professor of public sector management, King's College London.

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