Sunday, 11 January 2015

Taking schools policy out of political control means bureaucracy not better education


We hear it all the time.

A former permanent secretary at the Department for Education, Sir David says there should be no more major changes to the curriculum, qualifications or structural changes to schools during the course of the next Parliament.

He wants an independent body to set long-term policy, separated from the shifting demands of party politics.

This could create a qualifications system that would support a changing economy, he says, arguing that this would include replacing A-levels with a broader, baccalaureate-style exam system.

OK it's schools on this occasion but it could be health, policing, criminal justice or even the economy. In every case the argument for removing politics from the management or administration of a given public service is made by someone who will gain from such a decision. It is the former bureaucrat running a teacher training operation, the former police inspector, a body made up of health professionals and experts, and the assorted grandees of the City along with their house magazine, the Financial Times.

And because we hate politicians (with some justification on occasion) it's easy to nod and agree with the sages, with the experts who tell us that taking the politics out will remove all the bad stuff and will mean that they can create a wonderful system that will do the job just fine.

Except they won't. Trust me on this folks, they won't. It is disingenuous for Sir David Bell, who used to run the Department for Education, to suggest that bureaucrats like him have a fantastic, ready-to-roll system of education just waiting for the politicians to get out of the way. What Sir David wants - and I understand that Labour's excuse for an education spokesman likes this idea - is for an independent body run by him and his mates to replace the current system where we the public have a tiny bit of a say in how the system is run.

Indeed the independent schools body - doubtless called something like Education England - will have a board crammed with Sir David's pals (all pulling down a handy little stipend to top up their pensions) and a Chief Executive on £250,000 a year who will set policy for the long-term. There will be expensive offices in London, a lobbying team and a pleasing round of international trips, conferences and dinners for all those involved. Unfortunately it won't make the slightest iota of difference to schools and, worse, will mean that any semblance of democratic accountability for one of our critical public services is lost. Replaced by know-all folk most of whom are, as is Sir David Bell, responsible for the current mess in the first place.

So long as education is funded through direct taxation we have no real option but for the direction of policy to be in the hands of those people we choose to set policy. We call these people politicians. And politicians sound off about education, about bad schools, lousy teachers and bad management because the people who elect us care quite alot about what happens in schools. So when a school in our patch does well we shout about it and when a school does badly we worry.

If you remove politics from education policy (except do note that you don't actually do this), the result isn't a dramatic change or improvement but stasis.  In reality the moans from Sir David are more about a personal (self-interested) dislike for policy rather than any real conviction that a mystical, politics-free independent body would be any better. Believe me, we in Bradford know about taking politics out of education - it doesn't work.


1 comment:

Jonathan Bagley said...

Very interesting. Illuminating and depressing.