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The Blunkett education review 2: bureaucratic solutions

BlunkettCover2 (2)I argued in part 1 of my comments on the Blunkett review that some of its proposals could be beneficial. Now I want to discuss its problems and to argue that some of its key proposals should be rejected. (As previously R = recommendation.)

Much of the impact of the review’s key proposals would be to sideline democracy. This impact is most easily seen in his key middle-tier proposal: the creation of Directors of School Standards (R1).

The DSSs would replace the Coalitions proposed 8 regional School Commissioners and would cover a smaller area, usually of several local authorities. The review says that LAs would appoint the DSS from a list approved by “the Office of Schools Commissioner”. The briefing notes for the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) say that the list would be “approved by the Secretary of State for Education”. Whichever it is one thing is clear: only candidates with prior government blessing can be on the list.

The DSS chosen by the LAs from the approved short-list would be appointed for five years (renewable) and would be “statutorily independent” i.e. would be independent of local government politics (although, given the nature of the shortlisting, not that distant from government thinking). He or she would be responsible not only for (i) school standards but also for (ii) the provision of school places (i.e. opening and closing schools), based on LA data, (iii) teacher training in schools, (iv) special needs provision, (v) brokering school partnerships. All this would be done by the DSS using “a small back up secretariat”. (R1 to 5)

The DSS is thus the key figure of a new middle-tier. He or she would be more beholden to central government (because of the manner of selection) than to the LAs which make the appointment. The independence of the role would be a further guarantee of distance from any sort of deliberative democracy. This together with Blunkett’s broad acceptance of Gove reforms (“Academies are here to stay and we need to build on this landscape.” and “it is not recommended that we immediately move to deconstruct the existing landscape.”) and his market-based view of educational provision mean that the proposed DSS function would be a bureaucratic solution taking schools further away from responding to local needs.

New schools would be commissioned by the DSS, based on LA data, by running a competition of potential providers which are listed as “All trusts (including Community Trusts), partnerships, chains, parent groups, diocesan authorities and social entrepreneurs” (R22). Note that LAs are not included although in the briefing notes for MPs we find “David recommends allowing Local Authorities to once again bid to open new community schools”. Which is it?

A clue to resolving this ambiguity may lie in the often repeated, but never defined, reference to the “Community Trust model” and more broadly to Trusts. The Hackney Learning Trust is mentioned fourteen times and is held up as a model for new schools procurement. Is this what Blunkett has in mind when he talks of allowing local authorities to create schools? If so this represents a further marketisation and bureaucratisation of education. The Hackney Learning Trust is a private, not for profit company, that acts as the Councils education department on the basis of a ten-year contract. This both puts distance between elected representatives and educational decisions and could facilitate future privatising moves.

The review opens with reference to “the fractured landscape in the education system across” England. But it is clear that most of the fractures would remain: private sponsoring of schools, academies, academy chains, free schools (renamed parent-led academies), faith schools, private schools (never mentioned) and many more divisions. We also read “an increasingly fragmented education landscape in England makes it extremely difficult for parents to navigate the system” for which the solution is not to change that landscape but rather “a new ‘duty’ to inform and support the interests of pupils and parents should be placed on local government”.

Much is made of enhancing parents’ right of redress and of increasing accountability which makes clear that the democracy in this review is overwhelmingly of the consumerist type. If you don’t like the product you can take it back and complain. That works for biscuits. It doesn’t work for children.

There is much more to be said about this review. I have not dealt with its uncritical support for Ofsted and its head Michael Wilshaw, the failure to even mention the teaching unions or the restoration of national conditions of service, the role of private examination companies such as Pearson’s Edexcel. Most importantly there has not been space to deal with the all-important question of admissions policy on which the review makes a number of recommendations but still leaves schools acting as their own admissions authority.

Some insight is provided into the nature of Labour’s policy review process, to which this review is a contribution, by Tristram Hunt’s announcement that Labour has accepted the proposals for Directors of School Standards and giving them the power to commission new schools. The PLP briefing notes inform MPs “Labour is accepting both of these recommendations”. Were the MPs asked? Where ordinary members asked? How is it that we are being told the results of the Policy Review before it has even considered all submissions and amendments? This requires and answer.

Where do we go from here? First, the above mentioned policy-by-diktat must be challenged. Second, the proposal for a new Director of School Standards should be rejected. Third, democratically revitalised Local Authorities (sometimes in combination) should be restored as the most appropriate middle-tier between government and schools. Fourth, any continuation of a distinct status for academies and academy chains should be opposed. Fifth, Labour should take bodies like the CASE and its own SEA seriously and should listen to public opinion as expressed in the recent YouGov poll.

4 Comments

  1. James Martin says:

    Along with the top-down nature of all this, and the bizarre support for an old soak like Wilshaw (who slurs so much these days when making his regular attacks on teachers I’m not surprised you never see him walking anywhere), we have yet again the fact that they are not listening to those who actually work in education. Why continually give platitudes about teachers or heads, but then not ask them what actually works and doesn’t work in a school or college?

  2. Peter Rowlands says:

    Taken together with Part One an excellent and promptly delivered response to Blunkett. The apparent acceptance of these proposals exposes the sham nature of the consultation, at least as far as education is concerned, and that is why it is important that amendments to these proposals are submitted before the deadline of June 13th. I also hope that David can produce a further article dealing with those matters he mentions as not having time to comment on.

  3. Ray Kempson says:

    Basically, speaking as a lifelong ‘proud’ socialist, who has voted Labour since 1958, I really am not sure about Blunkett’s opinions about anything, considering that he is a Blairite.

  4. David Pavett says:

    CLARIFICATION. Subsequent to writing the above article I have learned that it has been made clear that the PLP briefing notes on the Blunkett review are incorrect in claiming that LA’s would be able to set up schools. LA’s in the Blunkett/Hunt world would maintain the Gove ban on LA school creation. The LA’s only function in that regard is to provide data to the DSS who will then commission a new school through market tendering in which LAs will not be allowed to participate. That is as clear as it is undesirable. It is also clear that Hunt regards this as Labour policy without waiting for the Policy Review to complete. Will the NPF accept the role of rubber stamp that is clearly expected of it?

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