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.