Michael Gove arrives at Downing Street ahead of the weekly cabinet meeting on February 4, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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We need Directors of Schools Standards to make academies work for all

Michael Gove has centralised power without any kind of mediating local tier between schools and the government. 

One of the great paradoxes of public service reform is that when politicians say (and often think) they are handing power away, they end up centralising more of it. The NHS reforms were trumpeted as pushing power down to GPs and patients, but ask most people in the system and they will tell you that the centre in the form of NHS England is now more powerful than ever. Similarly with schools: Michael Gove heralded his academies and free schools reforms as a triumph for local institutional autonomy and removing the dead hand of the state control. And yet because of his determination to remove local authorities from any meaningful role in schools, Gove has ended up creating a Napoleonic system in which half of all England’s secondary schools are directly accountable to the Secretary of State. 

This problem has been described as the so-called "missing middle", with too much power held in the centre without any kind of mediating local tier between schools and the government. This has led to three problems. First there has been poor place planning because local authorities have no powers to force academies to expand where there is demand, and because free schools have been opened up in areas where there is already a surplus of places. Academies can also open sixth forms without reference to wider local needs.

Second, there are problems with the monitoring of quality and performance, with a distant department for education struggling to monitor outcomes and ensure proper processes are being followed by hundreds of academies and free schools. This has been most visible following the problems at Al-Madinah, Kings Science Academy and the Discovery Free School, which have hit the headlines for poor provision soon after receiving government approval to open. Ofsted inspections are too infrequent and the department is too remote to be on top of what is happening in particular schools. There is no proper system in place to deal with failing academies or academy chains.

Third, there is a lack of transparency about how decisions are made. Parents and communities find their schools being taken over by new providers without any consultation. The decisions about who runs schools are taken behind closed doors by mysterious "brokers" appointed by government ministers.

This is why David Blunkett’s review of England’s school system published today is so welcome. Blunkett acknowledges that free schools and academies are here to stay, but rightly argues that they need proper transparency, planning and oversight. He backs IPPR’s proposals to decentralise many powers currently held by the Secretary of State to locally accountable figures responsible for raising school standards. These Directors of Schools Standards would be independent figures responsible for schools across a number of local authority areas. They would be responsible for holding all schools to account on behalf of local parents and would have powers to intervene in cases of failure. They would also hold open competitions for new schools, following local authorities assessment of where places are required and proper consultation with local communities In this way the proposal tackles the three major problems I identify above.

Beyond this, Blunkett envisages the DSS to have a role in promoting school improvement by brokering collaboration between successful and struggling schools, as was promoted through the successful London Challenge programme.

Importantly, Blunkett proposes to extend the powers academies currently have, such as to vary to curriculum and the length of the school day, to all schools. This is surely right: what is good for academies should be good for all schools. All schools, regardless of their legal status, would have the same freedoms and would sit under a single framework of local challenge and coordination.

Hemmed in by internal debates and facing an ideologically assertive Tory Education Secretary, Labour has thus far failed to project a clear and compelling agenda on education, which was once its signature policy issue. By making this move today the party has taken a major step forwards, but there is still much to do. The relationship between the new system for schools and reforms to post 16 education, where our biggest challenges lie, needs to be thought through. And, in the face of a broader Govean assault, Labour has yet to flesh out a wider educational alternative, articulating what kind of skills and knowledge our young people should learn in a modern post-industrial economy. 

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation

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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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