BRITAIN'S Conservative government has unwrapped a package of reforms giving parents the right to take over the running of state-funded schools themselves and putting pressure on teachers to strive for educational excellence.
Education Secretary John Patten, who unveiled the reforms in a White Paper July 28, is a forceful proponent of parent power. In the next few years, he wants the control of most of the 24,500 primary and secondary schools in England and Wales to be taken out of the hands of local councils, which are responsible for municipal affairs.
But his reform program is creating deep splits in the teaching profession and is being bitterly disputed by the opposition Labour party.
Changes that Mr. Patten calls "radical, sensible, and in tune with what parents want" have been denounced by Labour, with support from the National Union of Teachers, as "a recipe for chaos and upheaval." Teachers across the nation are divided, too.
Hugh Forsyth, headteacher (principal) of Rickmansworth School, north of London, sees the reforms as "a way of controlling our own destiny and deciding what our pupils really need." But June Fisher, headteacher of Catford Girls' School in Lewisham, south of the British capital, thinks Patten's proposed changes are "ill-thought out."
"They will undermine the entitlement of all children to a really good education," she says. Among Catford School's achievements under the existing system, Mrs. Fisher noted, was to shepherd "a quiet, conscientious girl" towards a career in domestic science (home economics). The girl was Norma Johnson, now wife of Prime Minister John Major, who appointed Patten to his post last April.
Patten's White Paper, much of which he wrote himself, is the most radical feature of a drive by the Conservatives to reshape a school system that critics say is short on educational quality and long on heavy-handed local bureaucracy.
Four years ago, Kenneth Baker, Patten's predecessor, imposed a national curriculum on schools, which he said would "produce a higher educational standard" across the country. To reinforce the move, he required all pupils to take written tests at ages 7, 11, 14, and 16; ordered that every teachers' performance be assessed annually; and foreshadowed a system of performance-related pay for teachers.
Mr. Baker also tentatively introduced a plan designed to loosen the grip of local councils - many Labour Party controlled - on the running of schools. He said that if parents voted to "opt out" of local-education authority control, they could form their own school boards and gain direct access to government funds that would otherwise be given to local councils to administer.
The Patten White Paper proposes to accelerate the opt-out process and, within a new system of parent-driven administration, introduce other changes. These include official encouragement of schools to specialize in such subjects as technology and modern languages, a requirement that moral education be part of every school curriculum, and - controversially - the appointment of special "task forces" that would be sent in to take over the running of schools inspectors decide are failing their pupils.
Patten's insistence that there be an overt "moral dimension" to education is a striking policy departure. Until now, governments have tended to be neutral on the inculcation of moral values.
The White Paper says: "Whatever the individual religious feelings of boys and girls, the ethos of any school should include a vision of the values within it, and those of the community outside."
The driving thrust of the new policy is its opt-out approach. Patten is convinced that many local authorities have starved schools in their areas of the funds they need. He cites the local-education authority in Birmingham as one of the worst offenders, claiming that it has been diverting to noneducational purposes British pounds55 million ($98.5 million) a year the government had earmarked for school operating costs.
At Rickmansworth, one of the first of the 288 schools to withdraw from local-education authority control so far, Mr. Forsyth is solidly behind the education secretary's declared aim of encouraging at least 4,000 schools to take the same route by 1995.
"Nowadays we are able to control our own destiny," he says. "We can decide what our priorities are, and how to allocate our resources, instead of having the decisions made by our local authority."
Using a direct government grant, the Rickmansworth board of governors for the school decided in 1990 to add four teachers to the staff, doubled spending on books and teaching materials, appointed a full-time careers adviser, and gave the school's science laboratory its first coat of paint in 24 years - all moves the local authority had been unwilling to pay for. The school canteen has been "privatized" and for the first time is making a profit.
"We are making better use of our resources than schools still under local-authority control," says Forsyth. "My job is to provide the best quality education I can. We are striving to be a beacon of excellence."
His enthusiasm for opting out is backed up by Lesley Tulett, a former businesswoman, now careers adviser at Rickmansworth School. "I can ring up a local surveyor and put him directly in touch with a pupil interested in surveying," she says.
Some headteachers remain unconvinced that opting out and encouraging schools to specialize in particular subjects, in the manner of "magnet" schools in the US, is the right way forward.
George Wiskin, headteacher of Westwood High School in Staffordshire, is strongly opposed to specialization. "It means there would have to be a selection system geared to accepting pupils of above-average ability only," he says. "It would also mean children who did not reach the required standard being consigned to a second-class school at the age of 11."
Mr. Wiskin and Patten are at loggerheads in their philosophical approaches to education.
In the 1970s, with strong backing from Labour governments, state-funded schools began to offer a "comprehensive" system of secondary education designed to foster equal treatment of pupils and geared to the attainment of a good general-learning standard.
It is this philosophy that Patten wants to change. Michael Fallon, a former Conservative education minister, thinks the old approach produced "a demoralized work force and dilapidated buildings."
"The councils have acted as an ill-maintained, expensive, and often malevolent filter between the resources the government allocates and the schools," Mr. Fallon says.
BUT Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, which has a record of left-wing political alignment, argues that the comprehensive system, administered by local authorities and dedicated to achieving a good overall standard of education, is superior to anything Patten can devise.
Mr. McAvoy denounced the proposed special teams to manage "problem" schools as "hit squads" and insisted that for many years parents and teachers have been able to influence local authorities "through the ballot box."
One key aspect of the reforms has run into trouble from some of the government's own supporters. Patten has proposed the creation of a central funding agency in London, with a network of local branches, to monitor the performance of schools that opt out of local-authority control.
The London Times, usually favorable to the Conservative government, greeted the proposal as "one of the most dramatic extensions of central government power" since 1945 and called it a "devastating vote of no confidence in local democracy."
Patten, however, says his opt-out proposals, together with the other reforms, will command the support of most parents, who will be managing their childrens' schools.
"If the parents decide opting out is what they want, that's what they can have," he says. "My reforms are the last piece of a new architectural landscape for the next century. The intention is to create a framework for increasing quality."