Sunday, November 15th

What to make of England’s politically-driven education debate? Well, often it seems to verge on the surreal.

The latest example came my way today, courtesy of two articles in the Sunday Telegraph. One was a piece by Ed Balls, the schools secretary, setting out his plans to “intervene” in schools where results are said not be good enough. The other was the news story in which further flesh was put on this announcement. Both talk about a new bill, to be announced in the Queen’s Speech this week, which will include these capabilities.

The first sense I got, on reading the pieces, was one of bewilderment. For the latest piece of education legislation, the Apprenticheships, Skills, Children and Learning Act, only became law days ago. This already gives Mr Balls and his successors sweeping powers to intervene in schools where performance is said not to be good enough.

That Act gives the Secretary of State the right to intervene – to direct local authorities to take action – in schools which are not just deemed to be underperforming as measured, presumably, by national test and exam results. He will also have these powers in respect to schools which “may in future be low-performing”, suggesting Nostradamus-like capabilities reside within Whitehall. Even this was not the first time similar intervention capabilities have been enshrined in law: legislation passed in 2007 allowed councils to step in to put pressure on the managements of schools which were said by exam stats to be “coasting”.(See story here) Thus, the 2009 Act was itself a ramping up of powers which are now, a few days later, deemed insufficient.

So what is the point of the new bill? How could it possibly go further than the powers already, now, on the statute book? Well, the news story puts forward some other elements to be included, such as forcing schools to conduct annual surveys of parents, and to draw up an “action plan” to tackle problems. The story adds: “The bill will make it easier for offending (my italics) institutions to be taken into partnership with successful schools, be run by outside education providers or even, in extreme cases, be closed by ministers.”

Again, leaving aside the potentially offensive – to those working in these schools – language,  I am struggling to see much that is new in all of this. And if these powers were needed, why were they not included in the previous bill? The obvious, cynical perhaps but then watching what goes on closely encourages that kind of viewpoint, explanation is party politics: it make sense to have a new bill, and a new set of headlines, which purport to show a government which is tough on “underperformance”. A governing party in need of votes needs to present afresh its policies to voters. Another law helps it to do that. So we get another law.*

Being charitable to the Government, it could simply be that local authorities, who have had these intervention powers for a while now, have not been keen enough to use them, and that pupils and their parents are the losers. Mr Balls accused some local authorities in his article of “dragging their feet” on intervention, and refusing to react to poor results by forming plans to turn the school in question into an academy, or to form a partnership with another high-performing school.

This, for me, is the key to the whole debate. When a local authority, or a school, decides to take action which might be seen from afar as not doing enough to tackle underperformance, who is best positioned to make the judgement as to whether this is right or not? For the Government, looking at the statistics of a school’s results from Whitehall, this position may look like complacency. But local people can have all kinds of reasons for deciding to take this course of action: they may not like the form of an academy proposal; they may have reservations about the fact that academies often replace clear local accountability and control by a community with handing power to a sponsor and to the Department for Children, Schools and Families; or they may believe that the school’s management is best placed to lead it under the current arrangements. Although institutional changes will give the impression that something is being done, many will argue that the key to good schooling is the quality of teacher-pupil interaction in the classroom, and simply changing institutional structures, which can be traumatic for pupils, may not be answer.

They may, then, have legitimate reasons for hesitancy. But our democratic system operates, now, from the political centre with statistics – rather than the day-to-day local engagement with an institution which one might get from, say, visiting it – the prime means by which one “sees” the quality of any school, hospital or whatever. Under this structure, local views can effectively be written off as “complacency”, and Mr Balls’s view is the one that must prevail. The true wisdom of what to do in any given situation, then, comes from Whitehall and Westminster, backed by results spreadsheets. But crucially, of course, as argued in my book, the accountability that occurs here is at the at-times superficial level of the official stats; it cannot see the prices that are sometimes paid by pupils in the drive to raise the numbers, such as the focus on particular courses, particular pupils or through teaching to the test.

As should be clear, these arrangements now vest a lot of trust in the Secretary of State, the one person through which democratic accountability effectively now travels. Under this line of argument, he is the guard against complacency within the public sector: by teachers, heads and local authorities. And, in taking action to intervene, he will always act in the public interest because…the public interest is for our schools to improve, as measured by the Secretary of State’s performance measures. Anyone questioning this is, by extension, simply another of those looking to excuse decades of underperformance.

There are a huge number of questions behind all of this. Perhaps the most pressing, though, is whether the exam numbers themselves, which have improved over recent decades, represent true progress, or something else. If it’s the latter – and, as my book argues, “gaming” of the system to generate the results it demands is likely to be a factor in some of the gains – big prices may be being paid.

 *The Conservatives will also be in on the act if elected: Michael Gove, Mr Balls’s shadow, promised in his speech to the party’s annual conference to take tough action in struggling schools as soon as/if they are elected. I am told that this will use Ofsted inspections as a key judging mechanism, rather than only relying on stats.

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