Tag Archives: Education

The Centralisation of Localism

The Tory-led government (yes, I am using Ed’s new phrase from now on) is all about localism. Localism is very much its thing, we are repeatedly told. But does the reality live up to the rhetoric? It won’t surprise you if you have followed politics for the past few months to discover that it doesn’t. And more worrying, where localism is being given a genuine chance, it’s as a cover for “chaos” in the delivery of public services.

First, let’s look at two flagship policies which are being touted as a move to a more local way of doing things. Education is an obvious example. Michael Gove wants local parents, charity or business groups to set up schools in their local area to offer schooling appropriate to the local children. These free schools are being driven by local demand, not managed from Westminster, we are told. They will have the freedom to teach what they like and employ who they like. Except. Except the decision on whether a school gets the go-ahead is entirely down to Gove himself. He is also solely and personally responsible for ordaining academy status on existing schools and can even force schools to become academies, regardless of whether they want to or not.

And while he talks about freeing the curriculum, he has decided which subjects actually count. So a school which wants to offer music, RE, sport or other subjects which fall outside of his arbitrary “English Baccalaureate” won’t be recognised in league tables. This is centrally applied pressure on what gets taught in schools and a million miles away from the localism agenda.

In education, the bodies which were responsible for ensuring local areas get proper school provision, the Local Education Authorities, are effectively being scrapped and decision-making is moving to Westminster. It’s clear that Mr Gove, while talking the talk on localism, is actively sprinting in the opposite direction when it come to genuinely localising services.

The same is true of enterprise and development. In England, the government is scrapping the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs), which were responsible for investing and supporting economic development in the English regions. They are being replaced by Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), which are supposed to be more local, more accountable and more effective because they are focused on smaller areas and run through existing local authorities. Except. Except the funding for the LEPs, which, let’s face it, is the important bit, isn’t local at all. The Regional Growth Fund (RGF) is a centrally-managed pot of cash which is doled out on the say so of ministers. In fact, it’s worth quoting directly from the BIS web site here as to who makes the decisions:

“Final decisions regarding support and prioritisation will be taken by a ministerial group chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister including the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and the Secretaries of State for: Business Innovation and Skills; Communities and Local Government; Transport; and Environment Food and Rural Affairs. The ministerial group will be assisted by an independent advisory panel chaired by Lord Heseltine that will make recommendations on which proposals best address the objectives of the RGF.”

So, do local people decide on which projects get the investment? Is it planned on a regional basis, as was the case with the RDAs? No. Nick Clegg and his cronies decide who gets the money. This is becoming entirely typical. A project supposedly designed to improve local economies is driven from the centre and turns out not to be local in any meaningful sense whatsoever. As in all these things, the wise approach is to follow the money. And you’ll usually find the money is in Westminster.

Where the government is happy to let local bodies take control is in areas where the cuts fall hardest. A cynic might suggest that as Eric Pickles announces more “localism” and the provision of services through local authorities on the one hand, he is dishing out a poisoned chalice of 25% budget cuts with the other. So, who gets the blame for failing services? Why, the local providers of course. After all, they are in charge now!

This is the essence of the “Big Society”. An abdication of government responsibility for services people rely on. There was a truly staggering piece on the “Office of the Big Society” on Radio Four’s PM programme on 12 January (listen from 22 mins). In it, Francis Maude made it clear not only that the government doesn’t know what’s happening on the ground in terms of service provision, but that it doesn’t want to know. In fact, it doesn’t care. It sees the obligation of government not to ensure everyone has local services they can rely on, but that they stand as far back as possible and see what happens. There is an admission that provision will be chaotic and patchy. They don’t care, because once the responsibility has gone from central government, they don’t think they can be judged on the outcomes.

So this is what localism means to the Tory-led government. Either it’s nothing more than shallow rhetoric, with powers being dragged back to Westminster, or, where it suits, it’s abandoning local communities to their own devices, to struggle on with vastly reduced budgets. Whichever way you look at it, it leaves people less in control of their own lives and the government’s claims to be empowering local communities looking very hollow indeed.

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The Real Cost of Free Schools

The new Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, has made much today of the launch of Tory bills on education, designed to increase the number of academies (often sponsored by private companies) and open up the system to allow the establishment of so-called “free schools”, run by any local interest group, charity, parents or non-for-profit organisation. I said during the election that this policy was the most divisive and ill-conceived of the Conservative plans and am disappointed that it has survived the coalition discussions.

The “free school” system allows independent parent, church or other groups to set up a school and receive government funding to run it. The idea is to engage the local community more in the schooling of children. In principle, it sounds a good idea, but since it’s been copied from Sweden, it would seem pertinent to see what the chief inspector of Swedish schools thinks about the system. Per Thulberg, director general of the Swedish National Academy for Education said in February that the system “had not led to better results” and any improvements had been down to the social background of the children attending the free school.

Also, Sweden’s standing in international league tables has fallen in recent years and sits well below the UK in performance in maths and science, where results have been improving. The independent Trends In International Maths and Science Study (TIMMS), shows that Sweden is hardly the model to copy if we are aiming to improve standards.

So, it rather begs the question as to why the Tories want to introduce a system, the architects of which themselves assert to have failed. The cost implications are considerable, given that these schools are to be created in areas which already have adequate school places, so the system creates excess supply in order to introduce competition. However, as with much competition, the playing field is far from level. Free schools can set their own admissions criteria and by definition will be set up by groups that think they can make a profit, or by parents with plenty of time on their hands. Neither of these suggests that the additional resources required will be targeted at those pupils that need most support in deprived areas. So, while resources are incredibly tight, the Tories have decided that oversupply in areas which don’t require new schools is the best use of limited money.

Although there is a supposed protection against simple profit-making with restrictions on who can establish schools, every non-professional group will require the support of service providers to assist with everything from equipping the school, to hiring and even providing staff. Private groups are already touting their services to interested parent groups because they believe that they can take a slice of the estimated £2bn schools “market” in the UK. Some are looking at setting up not-for-profit offshoots to allow them to directly run schools and then sell services to themselves. This money, remember, is tax-payers’ money which will be used not for improving teaching or schools, but the shareholder profits of large corporations. I strongly recommend you read this article from the Guardian examining ways in which companies are planning to take advantage of the new plans.

Another sector of society which is being encouraged to establish schools is the religious community. I accept that some schools ostensibly run by churches can be excellent learning environments, but to encourage more explicitly religious schools, funded by the state, is categorically wrong. We already have a ridiculous system where parents pretend to be religious and attend church for months on end in order to get the priest’s signature on their school application. Who has the time for this? Usually the well-to-do middle class. I would completely remove religion from schools, apart from as part of RE and history classes. Schools should not be able to select on the basis of religious faith or faux-devotion of parents. It’s very obvious why these schools are popular – they are filled with the children of parents so committed to their child’s education that they pretend to believe in God for months to get them a place. It’s safe to assume these kids are growing up in a family environment with a strong focus on achieving at school. It is not for the government to promote religious belief through education – the place for that, if it exists, is the home or local community.

What we need is a more diverse social mix in schools, energy to ensure everyone has a chance to improve and not hiving off control over standards and curriculum to small groups with specialist interests and the time to devote to running a school. Education is a way to improve everyone’s life, not just those with parents willing to take control over it. As a society, education can be a unifying force, which helps improve social mobility, understanding and respect. The Tories seem keen to make it the preserve of a select group of parents with time on their hands, or even more worrying, private providers looking to make money. This does our children a great disservice.

I am in favour of less government bureaucracy in our schools and a genuine comprehensive education. People should not be able to use postcode mobility and the sudden discovery of God to privilege their children over others. We must strive to bring standards up across the board and only through educating children from all backgrounds together can we hope to ensure that our future is more equal, understanding and harmonious. Teaching to different ability levels in separate classes can be helpful, as can offering less academic subjects to certain children, which build on their strengths and retain the child in the education system. The danger is meddling too much in the detail and the government has been guilty of this. If we get the structure, investment and people right, then our education system can offer, as it should, a brighter future for every child.

Gove’s conviction-driven nonsense misses the absolute, fundamental issue here – what education system will serve our children best? While always playing up to the media, Gove and the Tories have already lost sight of what matters most. Not impressive Michael. Must try harder.

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