Simon Jenkins’ recent article on the state of education in England is something of a mixed bag.
What is absolutely right is his account of decades of political interference in education.
“Both parties share the blame for this confusion. For a quarter of a century, Tory and Labour ministers created academies, grant maintained schools, specialist schools, city technology colleges and free schools, spattered across the country, a Whitehall education empire rivalling but always more expensive than local council schools.
Ministers stripped councils of school planning and funding and took these to Whitehall and a battery of new agencies. They prescribed everything from admissions criteria to how to teach history and maths. Blunkett, as education secretary, meddled incessantly, immersing teachers and pupils in cartloads of regulations, tests and targets. By the time the coalition came to power, to build a Whitehall school cost significantly more than a local authority one – over a quarter more.”
Simon Jenkins’ description of Blunkett’s period in power is very accurate, and without Blunkett’s interference and centralising policies Gove arguably wouldn’t have been able to impose the extreme measures that he has – from curriculum to governance. At least David Blunkett admitted to his errors on Radio 4’s Today programme this week, when he agreed that political and ideological meddling in education is wrong (eg micromanagement from the centre) and said that that if he had his time again he would do things differently.
The problem with the main thrust of Simon Jenkins’ piece is his assumption that Local Education Authority [LEA] “control” of schools, as an alternative to Whitehall intervention and direct oversight, is the definitive answer.
“Why not just return Whitehall’s schools to elected local education authorities? These exist. They offer a tried and tested model for local accountability. Where they fall short, they can be inspected by Ofsted and exposed.”
Many LEAs certainly do “offer a tried and tested model for local accountability” but some don’t fulfil their role effectively, thus depriving thousands of children of the education to which they are entitled and often obstructing headteachers and teachers from implementing pedagogy and processes that are right for their children. All LEAs were inspected by Ofsted and some of them have been found to be severely wanting. Some of the LEAs that were “exposed” were were put into special measures and told to outsource their education functions to private companies – often to disastrous effect.
Meanwhile, everyone was responding to the political directives – the targets, league tables and testing – losing sight of the individual human beings we know as children and young people. Education policy and practice has been driven and in many cases determined by those who are miles away from schools, and is to this day.
The Labour Party’s “Putting Students and Parents First” policy review document does indeed suggest that there should be another tier of “governance” in the form of Directors of School Standards [DSS] being appointed to “drive up performance”. It states that this appointment should be done locally “from a shortlist of candidates approved by the Office of the Schools” but that the accountability level should also be local and not to Whitehall. It also uses that all-important word “independent”. These appointments should be for fixed periods, and with appointees free to make education decisions based on expertise, education know-how and an understanding of local needs.
The policy review further says that these DSS’s should work with local authorities and the existing Directors of Children’s Services but that there should also be a new “Local Education Board” to,
“….include representation from schools in the area, parents and relevant Local Authority representatives, who would work with the DSS on the development of a long-term strategic plan for education, ensure commissioning decisions are taken in line with that plan and agree the budget proposed by the DSS. In the event of an impasse, the issue it concerned would be referred to the Office of the Schools Commissioner.”
Admittedly, some of these proposals need greater clarity, and Simon Jenkins is right to be wary. After all, we’re in this hapless mess of confusion because of damaging and ill-informed political interference in the first place. However, our interpretation of this proposal doesn’t concur with Jenkins’ assumption that “All Blunkett and Hunt seem to be doing is inserting another institutional tier between schools and Whitehall. This will have no elected representation, leaving true accountability still with the secretary of state.”
Yes, it may seem peculiar to place another tier within the system but that is possibly because the Labour Party acknowledges that, in the past, LEAs haven’t always been as purposeful and supportive in education as they might, and that they have been politically driven too.
Our interpretation (and hope) would be that any Director of Schools Standards (Schools Commissioner would be a preferable title) would have autonomy and local accountability – and when we say local, we mean local ; local to schools, local to children and parents/guardians – with the establishment of the Local Education Boards. The jurisdiction over their purpose and process would not be controlled by Westminster, Whitehall or any national governance.
The reality is that the LEA role as critical friend and accountability holder has been massively undermined, not only due to the cuts in the advisory services they provided, but also because many in LEA posts wholeheartedly swallowed the targets regime with no consideration to the individuality of schools and the people within.
Decisions in LEAs were often made based on funding streams and the requirements of central government diktat rather than a clear set of objectives for local education policy – outcome focused, with a “bottom-up” approach. Many Directors of Education and Children’s Services weren’t brave enough to withstand the political pressures to determine what was right for their children. Some local authorities insisted that there was only one way – the government way; one form of pedagogy to which every school ought to comply, one set of stringent targets that had to be reached irrespective of individual staffing issues or what they believed to be educationally and ethically sound.
Furthermore, the development of Children’s Services posts rather than Directors of Education was supposed to lead to a greater integration of services, whereby education policy was mindful of the wider needs of the child. However, schools and LEAs were only measured and accountable for hitting floor targets, so the other priorities as outlined in the Every Child Matters agenda were side-lined – and this continues to be so.
To this end, a Local Education Board (and DSS’s) would have that necessary autonomy and freedom from the negative aspects of local governance. It would be able to concentrate on education – in its fullest sense, and hopefully not restricted to the ‘standards agenda’. Most importantly it would be directed by local people for local people, and be free from the political manoeuvrings and whims of the elected government at both national and local level, whilst simultaneously identifying wider local needs in its aims for education on a local level.
This is the key, and signals a change of direction in policy that the large majority of educationalists would readily embrace. Furthermore, it’s a change in direction that would put children and positive, holistic outcomes for children at the heart of what we do in education.
As Jenkins concludes in his article,
“Real, accountable delegation downwards of any local service can only be to elected people – as in most democracies around the world.”
Let’s be positive. Let’s hope that this is what Blunkett, with his moment of reflection, means.