Opinion: School trust status is a slippery slope

Nick Cater, a consultant and writer, catercharity@yahoo.co.uk

The headline in my local Mendip Messenger magazine appeared uncontroversial: 'Secondary school goes it alone in charity move'. The Kings of Wessex Community School, run by the Church of England, had decided to become a foundation school and move out of local government control.

It did this because it believed it could "gain charitable status, which will give it access to grants from outside bodies" and "have more freedom", such as being able to develop land, select some pupils, employ its own staff and be run by school governors and managers.

The desire for "grants from outside bodies" - sorry, "freedom" - has some echoes in the Government's plan of progress for trust schools. They can go into partnership with bright and breezy businesses, charities and each other to escape the lash of local councils with their dead hand of democratic control and evil agendas of quality teaching, high standards and educational accountability.

It's not just that the voluntary sector's unique characteristics, or at least its terms and language, are again being diluted. Faith schools become foundations chasing dosh; area health authorities are primary care trusts too skint to provide care; predatory profiteering firms emerge as jolly, surplus-seeking social enterprises; and a noxious cloud of spin and rebranding obscures meaning and devalues integrity.

It's also what will happen if the Blair vision of thousands of trust schools becomes a reality. A flood of new charities will be set up, each with full-time members of staff eager to grab the cash they think outside bodies have waiting for them as grants.

How long before the PTA is taken over, parents are pressurised to make substantial donations, teachers find payroll-giving hints in every wage packet and pupils who once raised funds for outside charities discover something closer to home is now the only cause allowed? And how much longer before really successful schools - measured in cash terms, of course - use their profile and new status to cut into other charities' funding?

Mind you, a cash-strapped future Government might just find it convenient to suggest that the richest trust schools need not receive quite as much of their guaranteed subsidy from the state as before, sending their fundraisers into a frenzy once more.

A Government would never do that? If everything becomes a trust, trust will itself be in short supply.

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