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The Blunkett education review 1: debating the “middle tier”

BlunkettCover2 (2)The Coalition has centralised control of schools as never before. That has served the purpose of forcing the transformation of the English school system: the majority of secondary schools have been removed from the local authority framework and are now directly answerable to the Secretary of State for Education.

Labour has focused its criticisms this centralisation  but it was always clear that running thousands of school from Whitehall could not be a long-term solution. As acknowledged in the recently published Review of education structures, functions and the raising of standards for all by David Blunkett: “This architecture which leads schools to be contractually bound to the Secretary of State .. [is] unsustainable. … The Coalition have recognised this by … seeking to appoint Regional School Commissioners.”.

The issue is not therefore about the need for an administrative tier between central government and schools but rather what form it should take. The Coalition and Labour say they want to devolve power to schools. Devolution is spoken of as a universal good, but at the same time both parties make it clear that strategic planning mean that some things should not be devolved. Never let reality get in the way of a good slogan.

The Blunkett review proposes a Labour response to this and other problems. It feeds into Labour’s policy review in preparation for the general election. With amendments to Labour’s draft policy statements required from CLPs by 13th of June its is regrettable that this 66-page document with its 40 recommendations has arrived too late for consideration by most members trying to respond within the time frame set by the order of meetings of branches and General Management Committees. Tristram Hunt felt able to sayI can announce today that Labour will be taking forward David’s two core recommendations” prior to any discussion. How does he know the outcomes in advance? Rather gives the game away one might think!

There is much that is unclear in the report and it seems to have been written in a hurry (poor proof reading, jumbled paragraphs, no page numbers, no terms of reference, no list of submitting bodies and individuals, no list of submissions). Thus we read “along with many submissions received”. How many is that? How did this compare with the total number? No clues are given.

This long report covers many complex issues requiring careful evaluation rather than sweeping dismissal – even if, overall, we want to reject the its general thrust. So, to begin I will point out some potentially positive aspects of the report and, in a second article will focus on problem areas and judging the report as a whole.

On the (potentially) positive side (R = Blunkett recommendation):

1. Local Education Panels (R3). This has the potential to be a really innovative proposal. It could lead to genuinely democratic participation. However, for that it would be necessary to break out of the mindset that the only members of the public concerned are parents (in the role of ‘customers’). Educational debate concerns us all and the wider community must have access to such Panels if they are to be democratically meaningful. Similar comments apply to the idea of Citywide Learning Bodies (R3, R30);

2. Extending the Freedom of Information Act to cover all aspects of education (R25)  whoever the provider is better than the situation in which it is difficult/impossible to obtain information about academies;

3. If we accept that academies/academy chains as axiomatic (which I do not) – Blunkett says “here to stay” –  it would be better if schools have the right to leave/join chains as they wish (this in the text but not a recommendation – why is that?);

4. The links that bind schools to academy chains should be weakened (R9) (hurray!) by reducing each school’s contract with a chain to a five-year time limit;

5. Same legal status and funding mechanism for all schools, well, sort of (R24). This needs a lot of clarification;

6. Consensual politics advisory for education (R36). I guess that there will be a disagreement about this on the left. How can you have consensus with the ruling class that inevitably will want to protect its interests? I think this understandable response is a mistake. I would point to the difference between the inane exchanges of the House of Commons and the often intelligent and informed debate in the Select Committees. Remember, most Tory voters are not members of the ruling class (whatever their illusions may be) they have the same worries and concerns as the rest of us. A cross party approach to education would expose the right-wing consensus between the parties and open up a space for a reasoned alternative. Don’t reject it out of hand. Finland, still a capitalist country, adopted thus approach. No it has   no private schools and an excellent education system based on comprehensive schools run by local authorities;

7. No opting-out from locally agreed admissions codes (R15), except that “this does not interfere with the role of diocesan authorities, academies or schools as their own ‘Admissions Authority’”. So what this means is rather unclear;

8. Inspecting chains and trusts (R34). In a world in which education is fragmented into relatively independent ‘chains’ and ‘trusts’ it is clearly absurd that they are not subject to inspection.

That’s the extent of what, in my view, can see as potentiality positive, given appropriate political pressures and action to advance education. In a second piece on the review I will look at some of its more worrying aspects and proposals: (i) Blunkett’s total confidence in Ofsted and its head Michael Wilshaw, (ii) the central recommendation for a new tier of Directors of School Standards, (iii) problems with the “community trust model”, (iv) acceptance of academies/chains, (v) sponsorship, (iv) failure to mention teachers pay and conditions, (v) reliance on the consumerist model of democracy.

Useful links: (i) Richard Hatcher’s response to the review, (ii) the union responses: NUT, NASUWT, ATL.

4 Comments

  1. James Martin says:

    I heard Blunkett try and explain these proposals on R4 the other day. The man is a complete embarrassment who despite his previous tenure as a (very bad) secretary of state for education clearly understands little about what happens in schools and the picture on the ground.

    First, his central concept of regional ‘commissioners’ (di they get gold braid and funny hats)? has just been implemented by Gove and these clowns are now in place. Yes, of course Gove’s ‘commissioners’ have been hand-picked by DfE and will oversee academies and free schools only, while Blunkett proposes a ‘choice’ locally from a small hand-picked list of candidates from DfE (democracy Chinese style I believe that is called), and that they will oversee all schools.

    But of course that is far worse than the current Gove Commissioners, because the net effect will be to remove the last bit of democratic accountability that LA’s still have in England with maintained schools, and turns democratically elected LA’s and experienced local schools teams into one of many ‘stakeholders’ (a word always used when democracy is being destroyed and replaced by command control by unaccountable forces).

    The fact that he has had to come up with this policy in the first place is of course because the academies programme is being shown day after day as the disaster we always knew it would be – unaccountable schools, financial irregularities, dangerous issues over increased religious influence, the destruction of local admission policies and places planning, and the undermining of education staff pay and conditions of service via the slow destruction of centralised collective bargaining.

    Of course many of these things were always intended by New Labour (particularly I believe the destruction of collective bargaining), but some others are the unintended (but not unwarned of) consequences of what happens when you part-privatise our schools.

    And never forget that one of Labour’s first flagship academies (done under Blunkett’s watch), Fulwood in Preston, showed from the start what all this means in reality. The school was and is ‘sponsored’ by Sir Charles Dunstone (Carphone Warehouse) and the forst act was to clear out all the local governors and replace them with Charlie’s business chums, who all appeared to live at least 200 miles away. One of those chums on the new governors body was a certain Rebekah Brookes. And the result of all this? The school is now in special measures and pupil numbers have plummeted as local residents have voted with their kids feet.

    And yet Blunkett has learned nothing from all this has he? He just carries on with his right-wing pro-privatisation/market agenda as if that is the answer to educational standards despite all the evidence showing otherwise.

    And then lastly what is all this nonsense about the worship of headteachers? Yes, there are many excellent heads who work wonders in challenging situations. However, as am education professional myself I have regularly had to deal with heads who are incompetent, ineffective and occasionally some of the worst bullies (of their staff) you are ever likely to come across in any workplace. And we want to give them even more unaccountable powers? Jeez…

  2. swatantra says:

    What the Tories are offering is every school doing its own thing, which is frankly ridiculous. As said Academies are failing as are Free Schools and Faith Schools. I’ve never known the Education system is so much chaos and anarchy before. Every schools competing with every other school. Schools should in fact be working together co-operatively in a locality, in a District in a Region. And that means ALL Schools coming under a proper County and Regional Authority. We haven’t got that. Blunkett needs to take a rest, and spare us his wisdom.

  3. David Pavett says:

    @James Martin and Swatantra

    I agree with your points but the problem is that the acceptance of neo-liberal thinking about education by Blunkett, Hunt et al that the problem is how does one combat it most effectively. It is one think to condemn their general approach (I do) but it is another to (1) unpick their analyses and proposals and (2) to offer a plausible alternative.

    It is my belief that if that despite decades of media assault on comprehensive education (properly conceived) it is an idea which (properly presented) would still easily command the majority assent of not only the majority of Labour members but of the general public as well. The issue is that none of that shows in Labour’s stage-managed version of Party democracy. In other words Labour is, on this question, an obstacle to progress rather than a means of implementing it.

  4. James Martin says:

    The point I always make about comprehensives David, is that when you actually look at the ‘successful’ independent schools most of them are actually convinced comprehensives in how they operate educationally with no academic selection being made, just the ability to pay fees.

    Of course they tend to be well funded, have smaller classes, and have a larger range of extra-curricular activities on offer. But essentially a ‘good’ comprehensive is no different to a ‘good’ independent school except when it comes to that essential ingredient – that like the NHS they are free at the point of use.

    But of course the independent sector (and how to deal with it) barely gets a mention in Labour education policy documents does it, despite its role in educating and perpetuating the ruling class.

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