Charities are set to run trust schools, but is it the golden opportunity it sounds?
After all the clamour surrounding the second reading of the Education Bill earlier this month, most voluntary organisations will know of the opportunities now open to them to run so-called trust schools.
This chance for the sector to engage in the delivery of state education has not come easily, however, and Prime Minister Tony Blair had to rely on Tory MPs to vote the reforms through, after 52 Labour backbenchers rebelled against his plans.
Teachers are also reluctant to hand over the reigns to third sector providers, faith groups and businesses. A poll by the Association of School and College Leaders revealed that only 5 per cent of schools would consider applying for trust status, which would give voluntary bodies managing a trust school control over its curriculum, staffing and finances.
So do trust schools present an opportunity for the sector to spread its expertise to another section of public life? Or, with emotions running high, is education one area from which voluntary bodies would do well to keep out?
The picture is inevitably a confused one. The Campaign for State Education, which has opposed trust schools since their appearance in a White Paper last year, is quick to point out the potential dangers of voluntary organisations wading into an area they neither know nor are qualified to enter.
"We have a lot of concerns, particularly if groups have no experience of education," a spokeswoman for Case said. "What qualifications would they have to be responsible for a school's admission and curriculum?"
Plenty, is the answer offered by Neil McIntosh, chief executive of the CfBT Education Trust, one of several charities keen to take advantage of the school reforms. He says: "The voluntary sector already runs some of the best schools in the world."
The problem, McIntosh points out, is that until now only privileged students have been able to benefit from the expertise of non-profit providers, because they have been forced to operate largely in the independent sector.
He sees no reason why less privileged youngsters should not be offered the same choices as their better-off peers. "There's not a scintilla of evidence to suggest that the voluntary sector can't run schools for less privileged students," he says.
Objections to the sector delivering state education are short-sighted, McIntosh adds, considering the sector has already proved itself in other equally sensitive areas of public service provision. "Many special schools for disabled or otherwise out-of-the-mainstream children are run by voluntary organisations," he says. "Residential childcare is also predominantly provided by the voluntary sector."
But McIntosh isn't blind to the potential pitfalls of getting involved in the Government's oxymoronic "independent state schools", which will be run by trusts but will remain under overall government control.
"It's unclear what the status of these schools is," he says. "I think if trust schools aren't fully independent, then that confuses people as to who is accountable for what."
Acevo, which is also keen to encourage sector involvement in yet another area of public service delivery, agrees. "Schools are currently answerable to the boards of governors and the local education authorities," says David Hunter, policy and development officer at the chief executives' body. "Who would the governors be for these trust schools and who would they answer to?" Hunter believes the Education Bill provides excellent opportunities for charities that are keen to get on board. But he admits there are hurdles.
These are hurdles Acevo might have to get used to, however. Education could well join other areas of service delivery where some of its members bemoan an unequal playing field in relation to local government.
McIntosh says: "I don't think there would be competition between the voluntary and commercial sectors, but there could be inequality of treatment between the public and voluntary sectors."
Although trust and 'conventional' state schools are to receive similar funding, the former will take on all of the risk and liability that is normally absorbed by the local authority, according to McIntosh. "There should be some financial reward for doing so," he says.
In this case, charities might be best off heeding the advice of Richard Williams, chief executive of Rathbone, a non-profit education provider that is giving trust schools a wide berth. Williams agrees that in principle they provide an opportunity. But he adds that the opportunity is "only for those organisations that have the capacity and strength to run a school effectively".