Wednesday, April 7th

It’s bizarre what’s happened to the last education bill of this Parliament today, with the scrapping of changes including the Rose primary curriculum reforms, compulsory sex education classes and the proposed school report card.

The trigger was the failure of the Government and the Conservatives to reach agreement on the bill, with the Tories opposed to much of it. With time running out in the run-up to the election, in the so-called “wash-up” period, it appears the Conservatives had the whip hand and therefore their opposition to reforms including the Rose review seems to have won the day. It’s almost as if the government has changed already.

I’m not going to comment too much on individual policies in this bill, although I have reservations about the school report card in particular: rating institutions on single grades or numbers always seemed dangerously simplistic to me.

But it does strike me as very strange that vast amounts of time, energy and resources can be expended on the development of policies which seem never, now, likely to see the light of day. (The Rose Primary Review began way back in January 2008). If the Conservatives had come in next month and decided to do their own thing, well fair enough in a sense. I just find it strange this has happened in this way before we’ve even had an election.

The Conservatives say the Government should have known that these policies were unlikely to be enacted because of the tightness of the Parliamentary calendar and the reluctance of the opposition parties to embrace them. But it is puzzling to me that we can move from a system whereby an elected government – rightly or wrongly – can by and large push its policies through Parliament (so long as the governing party’s MPs remain behind it) to one in which the opposition can dictate their terms in this way, solely because of the timing of an election. If schools have spent time gearing up for these reforms, only for the politicians to tell them they will have to start again, it seems to be to be another bad day for our already hugely over-politicised system for running education. The Parliamentary process deserves some more scrutiny over this.

It is ironic, too, that a centralising measure – new powers of the secretary of state to “intervene” when school results in a particular local authority are deemed too low – appears to be being retained in what survives of the bill as it heads towards Royal Assent. This is so even though the Conservatives sometimes talk enthusiastically about decentralisation.

The new intervention power would see Ed Balls or his successors able to direct a local authority to issue a warning notice to a school which is not doing well enough. (Previously, he had the power to advise an LA to do so but it did not have to take his advice). I have written about these intervention powers before, and suffice to say I’m not a fan of this authoritarian approach. If the secretary of state is seen as the only guardian of high standards – and teachers, school leaders and even local authorities are seen as potentially not up to the job of deciding what are reasonable expectations to have of children – then effectively, trust resides in him to do the right thing by schools, rather than in all these other actors in the business of helping pupils do well. That is, then,  a very centralised structure. If the Tories support it, it shows up again the tension between the authoritarian and liberal strands of their thinking.

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