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Advisory Centre for Education

Author: Cate Newnessmith
Published Date: 22 February 2008

The primary aims of ACE were to shame and cajole the educational establishment into being more responsive to the needs and the desires of parents and to empower parents to contribute to such changes.

The Advisory Centre for Education grew out of Michael Young’s two beliefs that users of public services were consumers just like those buying from the private sector, and that the empowerment of consumers, through the provision of high quality and relevant information, was the best way to improve those services.

In the 1950s and 1960s educational institutions, and schools in particular, were extremely unresponsive to the needs of parents and pupils. There were no parent governors, no parent-teacher associations and schools frequently displayed signs on the gate refusing entry to parents. As Michael Young said in his foreword to Listening to Parents, 'We all thought then that schools and local education authorities were far too stand-offish about parents'.

The six main principles governing the activities of ACE, outlined by Michael Young in the first issue of Where?, were:

  • ‘Parents of all income groups should have as much choice as possible, as well as the information needed to exercise it sensibly’ – this priority is based on the wording of the 1944 Education Act that pupils are to be educated according to the wishes of their parents (although this was never much of a reality for the majority). In addition he stated that ‘ACE has no educational policy’ – it had no preference for different forms of education but sought to evaluate those which existed from a perspective which maximised parental choice.
  • ACE would ‘never attempt to evaluate the quality of any particular school’ – schools are unique, as are children, and it would be wrong to imply that some schools would be better than others for all potential pupils. When ACE departed from this principle by publishing a ‘Good Schools Guide’ in 1968 it received ‘something of a bashing from the Press’ .
  • ACE would answer questions by letter and with the help of a panel of expert consultants.
  • The brief of ACE covered all sectors, institutional types and ages and stages (including, in the first two decades, nurseries, fee-paying schools, further education and higher education).
  • ACE would liase with educationalists (including LEA administrators).
  • ACE’s service would be geographically limited to England and Wales (although there was a brief extension into Scotland).
  • ACE wanted to develop parental choice beyond the ability to choose a school best suited to their child and into the realm of ‘parent power’ where parents could exert an influence within schools on matters such as the school curriculum and school policies. This kind of parent power was felt to be stifled by the almost complete lack of consumer-friendly information, the power of others (government, unions, LEAs and universities) to set agendas and an institutionalised culture that ignored parents.

    The establishment of ACE
    The idea behind ACE came from Michael Young butearly on he left the day-to-day running of the organisation to Brian Jackson, a sociologist of education. He did, however, remain Chairman until 1976, and President from then until the 1990s, and remained active in the generation of new ideas and projects. He also acted as an advocate for ACE and its aims in public, including representing them while sitting on the Plowden Committee, which wrote the report Children and their Primary Schools in 1966. Although he remained involved with ACE until at least 1995, Michael Young appears to have successfully created an organisation which was able to continue and thrive even after he died.

    The ideas for the ACE and Where? magazine seems to have developed after the success of Michael Young’s earlier projects, the Consumers’ Council and Which? magazine. The popularity of Which?, and its success in building consumer power encouraged Michael Young to extend the principal of empowering consumers to include public services, and he wrote of empowering people ‘as parents, as patients, as passengers’ .

    ACE and Where? magazine were developed twenty years before Margaret Thatcher began encouraging people to apply market principles to public services.In this way their work was visionary, requiring as it did a completely new way of thinking about an old problem.Instead of leaving the critical decisions in the field of education up to civil servants and teachers Michael Young envisaged a system in which the users of the services (and indeed the people paying for them) could have more impact on their type and quality.

    In fact, in the absence of any formal mechanisms for communicating parents’ concerns, there was no provision at the time for parents to have any say in the nature of their children’s education (unless they were wealthy enough to be able to take their offspring out of the state system altogether, and even then, in a true market, the providers were often also unresponsive). Even in the 1980s, when ‘choice for parents’ became an explicit government goal, there was little sign that this meant anything more than the parent’s choice of school.Once in the school parents remained fairly disempowered, and this meant that ACE’s campaigning and empowerment work continued.

    The work of ACE
    The primary aims of ACE were to shame and cajole the educational establishment into being more responsive to the needs and the desires of parents and to empower parents to contribute to such changes.To achieve these ACE gathered and provided information to parents, identified gaps in educational provision and advocated changes in public attitudes towards the role of parents, pupils and students.

    ACE was involved with a large number and variety of projects, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, when spending frequently exceeded financial capacity. Examples of some projects include:

    • The production of 56,000 copies of an advice booklet for Ugandan refugees explaining the British education system.
    • A holiday camp for miners’ children during the 1972 strike
    • The ‘parent to parent’ service which invited members to write reports of their children’s schools which were then passed on by ACE to other members (this attracted mainly middle class parents).
    • Establishment of ‘education shops’ insix cities in the 1960s andtwo Butlins camps in the early 1970s to persuade LEAs that they should provide better information to parents and to enable ACE to reach a more socially representative audience than their membership, which they were indeed successful in doing (e.g. in Ipswich 28% of visitors were from the manual working class compared with only 1% of subscribers to Where?).

    In addition ACE was involved in the establishment of the University of the Air , the Technical College Clearing House, the Home and School Council, the ACE Nursery School, the Association of Multi-Racial Playgroups and the National Extension College (pilot project for the Open University).

    Originally it was envisaged that all users of education services, and their parents, would benefit from the services provided by ACE.Over time their emphasis narrowed to serving the needs of the majority (which meant ceasing to provide information on fee-paying schools) and specifically those agedfive tosixteen in state-funded schools (which meant ceasing to provide information on nurseries, higher and further education).

    Change and development in ACE
    Until the late 1970s ACE was able to continue its work in much the same fashion as initially envisaged in 1960. The threat of bankruptcy and the loss of some of the original impetus behind the organisation meant that this began to change from around 1977. In addition, in the late 1970s the Centre became more politicised, especially after the election of the Thatcher government and their subsequent educational reforms. ACE began to take on new issues, including racial discrimination in schools, the need for mainstream educational provision for children with special educational needs, and the growing problem of exclusion from schools.As noted above, they continued to campaign for the full involvement of parents (and sometimes students) in the education system, even after school choice moved up the political agenda.

    After a run-in with the Charity Commission in the late 1980s for being too political ACE withdrew and returned to its core mission of providing advice and information to parents, and to providing responses to government papers. Since 1991 the Centre has diversified and now provides training for education professionals and regionally based advice workers who are able to reach parents more proactively than the phone line. ACE has also developed a range of jargon-free booklets called 'My child in school', which provide information on the most common problems dealt with by the advice line.These are now available in hard copy and for downloading from the internet. In addition, their website provides responses to frequently asked questions and a glossary of education terminology. It is clear that the target market has changed from long term members to parents who find themselves in need of advice and approach ACE on an ad hoc basis.

    There is evidence that ACE was extremely successful when first founded because it tapped into significant unmet needs among parents. Membership grew swiftly, from 3,000 in 1961 to 23,000 in 1970. This provided the Centre with a steady revenue stream with which to develop new projects and organisations.It was possible to raise significant amounts of money from members because ninety four per cent of themwere from professional classes (I & II). This fact was lamented by ACE staff since the explicit aim of the organisation from the beginning had been to provide information and advice to the most disadvantaged. Nevertheless, this revenue stream allowed ACE to fund projects which would not otherwise have been possible.

    Joan Sallis has argued that the late 1970s proved a crucial moment in the history of ACE:

    'The ‘club’ atmosphere has completely gone, the beneficiaries of the Centre’s work… are probably seen not as those who regularly read its publications or indeed regularly read anything.There is no suggestion of a cosy subscriber group sharing similar aspirations who can help themselves and each other get those aspirations met. Information is still regarded as the key to progress, but it is needed not so much as an adjunct to choice, as a prerequisite to playing a supportive role as a parent and to exercising and extending the rights to parents and students to a partnership role.The emphasis is now wholly on majority needs in education.'

    The professionalisation of ACE, and its renewed emphasis on the needs of the less privileged, mark a significant shift, the point at which the old model, based on the Consumers’ Council, broke down, and a more progressive organisation emerged.After the appointment in 1977 of Peter Newell, and the move back to London (from Cambridge), funding arrangements also changed. Advice on independent schools was no longer provided, nor was the parent to parent service for sharing experiences of specific schools. The cessation of these services meant the loss of revenue from professional parents.Soon, most funding came from local authorities, charitable foundations and the donations of individuals, rather than from subscriptions to Where?, which brought a new set of limitations. In particular, ACE found that it washard to get funding for running a telephone advice line.ACE finally ceased producing Where? in 1984, although its successor, the ACE Bulletin, has provided a similar service ever since.

    Success factors and possible future developments
    One of the key success factors of ACE was its provision of a postal advice service, and later a telephone (and then internet) advice line.This gave the Centre a unique insight into the problems parents were facing, and gave them legitimacy when they claimed to speak for parents.This has enabled ACE to influence government legislation throughout the period of its operation, and to provide a number of different services, each grounded in the real needs of parents.Another related success factor is the existence of significant need for the services provided by ACE. Before the establishment of the Centre there was no other organisation providing a similar service, and over the years, through their contact with so many parents, ACE has been able to identify, and sometimes meet, the needs of their clients some time before others have done so. Even today, with the proliferation of advice from services as diverse as the BBC, the government, private initiatives and charities, ACE retains a unique market position, supplying advice not only to parents but also to local authorities and education professionals.

    The aim of ACE was never to provide specific information on which schools were good or bad.Parents looking for information on specific schools may use a number of other sources, including Ofsted reports, exam results and local authority publications.There is not, however, a forum (along the lines of ACE’s now defunct ‘parent to parent’ service) in which parents can share experiences of their local school in order to compliment the information provided by the school itself.While some sites, such as, provide a possible location for such an exchange of information this does not appear to occur frequently. This may be because there is little demand for such information, or because parents rely on informal contacts to provide it.The internet may in fact be inappropriate for bringing together people who are already geographically concentrated around a school.

    One other area in which information seems to be lacking (although again it may be simply informally distributed) is that of catchment areas.Most non-selective LEA schools admit at least some of their pupils based on the distance they live from the school gates. Parents are advised to apply only to schools by which their children have a realistic chance to being accepted, yet there is no formal source of information on the catchment areas of different schools.This may be partly because the catchment areas change every year depending on the number and location of applicants, and local authorities may not want to imply that pupils living on a certain road are entitled to a place at a given school. Nevertheless, the five-year average could be released as a useful guide for parents.