Towards a totalitarian education system in England – Sir Peter Newsam

Over the past forty years, the publicly-funded schools in England have moved from being part of a democratically managed system to what is now becoming a totalitarian one. A totalitarian system may be benign or otherwise. What it by definition requires is for all decision-making, other than the trivial, to derive from a single source. That in turn requires the elimination of other persons, such as the princes in the Tower, or institutions, such as, in this instance, democratically elected local education authorities, from anything more than a cosmetic share in that decision-making.

The transition to a totalitarian schools system in England, with the Secretary of State as effectively the sole decision-maker, has required the destruction of the balance of responsibilities between local and central government established in the 1944 Education Act by the wartime coalition led by the Conservative and Labour Parties. That balance was designed to prevent the totalitarianism against which a war was being fought. It did so by ensuring that neither local nor central government could exercise absolute control over any publicly-funded school in England. Heads and governors of schools, for example, had oversight of the curriculum; it was for local education authorities to propose to open, close or change the character of a school; and it was left for the Secretary of State to decide to accept or reject any such proposal. For his part, the Secretary of State could not himself decide to open or close a school; he had to await any such proposal from the local authority that had been or would be maintaining it.

By the mid 1960s, it had become evident that the structure of local government, outside London, needed strengthening. A Royal Commission was appointed to examine the matter. In 1969, after extensive debate and evidence from, local and central government agencies, the Department for Education, teachers associations, HMI and the public, the Commission published its report. This recommended, amongst much else, that the 260 existing local authorities with varied responsibilities for education (124 education authorities, 31 ‘excepted districts’ and 125 divisional executives) should be replaced by 78 education authorities ( 58 of them unitary authorities and 20 within three large metropolitan areas). Most of the Commission’s proposed local education authorities would be serving a population of between 500,000 and ‘not much more than a million’ people. HMI had reported that existing local authorities of that size were consistently proving to be more efficient than smaller ones, largely because only these larger ones could afford to appoint the specialist staff and attract political leadership of the required quality to enable them to carry out their responsibilities effectively. The 78 local authorities proposed would be large enough, the Commission considered, to be entrusted with the ever increasing educational responsibilities conferred on local authorities by parliament. The Commission had been made aware of the likely recommendations of the Seebohm report on the social services, to be published in 1970. It accepted that, to ensure that social services and education were managed by the same local authority, as Seebohm was intending to suggest, a local authority population of 250,000 would be acceptable. The boundaries of the local authorities proposed in the Commission’s report reflected this decision. Despite the institutional disturbance this would cause, the reasoning behind the Commission’s recommendations commanded widespread support from all who would be affected by it. The Commission had described its report as ‘the first attempt ever to examine the government of our towns and countryside from top to bottom, and to plan a radically new start.’ That report has also proved to be the last such attempt. The changes to local authority boundaries and functions since then have almost all been ill-considered and, in their effect on the education service, damaging. In 1970, a Conservative government was elected. Its response to the Royal Commission’s recommendations on the appropriate size for a local authority was to ignore them. Instead of 78 local authorities the government created 97. Many of these were far below the minimum size the Commission had proposed; so the opportunity to create a set of local authorities fully competent to share with central government the responsibility for meeting the developing needs of the services entrusted to them was lost. The rejection of the Commission’s recommendations on structure has had particularly serious and lasting consequences for education as a local government service.

The second stage in excluding local government from any important share in decisions about education was achieved by local authorities themselves. In 1972, a group of legally qualified local authority chief clerks were attracted by a theory of management that placed them in a dominant position as local authority chief executives. The Bains Report reflected a widespread belief that better coordination was needed between the various services provided by local authorities. It also reflected pent up irritation within some local authorities at the role of their education committees and their chief education officers. The former had their own association, with Sir William Alexander as its formidably effective Secretary, that had direct access to Ministers of Education. Similarly, chief education officers were directly in touch with senior officials at the Department of Education . This manner of functioning was considered incompatible with corporate management. On the reorganisation of local government in 1974, direct contact with the Department of Education by education committee chairmen and their chief officers was discouraged or even prohibited by council leaders and their newly created chief executives. In some areas, chief education officers, administratively responsible for by far the largest service managed by a local authority, were downgraded and became corporately entangled in matters which had nothing to do with education. Corporate management makes good theoretical sense in local government but can only function properly if corporately managed local authorities are able to deal with corporately functioning government departments. But government departments, administering functionally framed legislation such as the Education Acts, remained resolutely functional The result was predictable. When the Department of Education obtained money from the Treasury for some specific educational purpose, it could no longer rely on those funds being used for that purpose in a corporately managed local authority. The Department’s response was increasingly to act through agencies developed by central government, such as the Manpower Services Commission. These nationally funded and managed agencies, operating locally but outside the remit of the local authority, led to a sharp and permanent reduction in the contribution local authorities were able to make to decisions on important aspects of education and training in their areas. Corporate management, which has worked reasonably well for most services, has led to crippling and largely self-induced damage to the educational role of local authorities.

The third stage in removing local authorities from any important share in the decision-making process was to nationalise the curriculum. Between 1870 and 1895, the Board of Education’s Revised Code had acted as a tightly controlled and rigorously tested curriculum for elementary schools. Growing evidence of its failure led to its replacement in 1904 by a few statutory requirements accompanied by an annually published ‘Handbook of Suggestions for Teachers’ . The Introduction to the 1927 version noted that these ‘remained ‘suggestions’ for the consideration of teachers . . .and should be regarded as a challenge to independent thought on the subjects treated.’ Between the 1960s and the early 1980s, the nature of the school curriculum became the subject of widespread public and professional debate. The Schools Council, which included representatives of the teachers, of local education authorities and of the Department of Education, had since 1963 been developing a range of suggestions on the school curriculum but their effect on what was actually taught in schools was patchy. During the mid to late 1970s, a ‘Great Debate’ was held in which all elements of the education service took part, many without much enthusiasm. Meanwhile, the Department of Education was becoming increasingly doubtful about the School Council’s effectiveness and had been formulating its own ideas about the curriculum. In the early 1980s, a report was commissioned on the future of the Schools Council. This recommended that the Council should continue its work. In 1984, the government’s response was to abolish it. By 1988, the Conservative government had decided that further work on the curriculum was to be undertaken without other than token assistance from teachers or local education authorities. The curriculum was to be nationalised. There were a number of different ways in which a national curriculum could have been created that had a statutory basis requiring a degree of compliance but would have left room for ‘independent thought’ on the part of teachers. Advice on the matter poured in from all directions, not least from Lords Tebbitt and Joseph. Both warned against an over-complex set of statutory requirements. All such advice was ignored. On notions of how learning ought to occur, not altogether dissimilar from those in the nineteen century’s Revised Code, a detailed, ten subject, curriculum was devised with measurable content and defined levels of achievement, for which schools could be held accountable. After more than twenty years of expensive amendment, that national curriculum has now reached an advanced state of disintegration but still determines the content of what schools in England are required to teach and on which it is believed a school’s merit or lack of it can be measured and judged. Only the Secretary of State can initiate changes to the national curriculum but he has so little faith in its merits that to be free of some of its requirements is being offered to schools as an inducement to enter into funding contracts with him as academies. Before the national curriculum existed, schools taught nearly everything that is now in it, arguably sometimes better and, arguably, sometimes less well but certainly less uniformly. What is also certain is that the principal effect of a nationalised curriculum has been to give the Secretary of State direct and statutorily enforceable control of what is taught and tested in every maintained school in England.

The fourth stage of the move towards a system whereby a Secretary of State effectively becomes the sole decision-maker for education in England has been a drive to nationalise all its publicly funded schools. This is to be achieved by the academy programme. Under this programme, all schools are to be invited, induced, or required to become directly dependent on annual funding, at any level that within reason he chooses, from the Secretary of State, under a contract he makes with the trustees of each school. Academies are regularly described as ‘State’ schools but the contracts are with an individual government minister and, unlike Louis XIV, an individual government minister is not the State. An academy should therefore properly be seen as a government school. From the point of view of the Secretary of State, one obvious merit of academy funding contracts is that he can give notice to terminate them as and when he thinks fit. He has no need to comply with any regulatory provisions that used to make it impossible either for a local authority or a Secretary of State to stop funding a school without the public being able to exercise a right to have its objections considered. The Secretary of State’s declared aim is for all 24,000 or so schools in England eventually to become academies. Funding that many schools by means of an individual contract with each of them is a uniquely extravagant and absurd way of proceeding. Funding by contract is, however, a highly effective way of establishing direct governmental control of each school’s annual expenditure and of destabilising local authorities in the process. That destabilising is achieved by diverting money from local authorities to provide inducements to schools to become academies and, in so doing, make it increasingly impossible for local authorities to finance or manage their other educational services effectively. The damage this arbitrary diversion of resources necessarily creates is already becoming evident. But the essential purpose of a system whereby all schools become academies is clear. As an academy cannot decide it would rather not continue to be one, the future of each academy is irreversibly placed in the hands of the present or any future Secretary of State, on whom each school is and has to remain wholly dependent under the terminable funding contract it has entered into.

English local authorities are now no longer described as education authorities and have been effectively removed from other than a cosmetic part in the decision making process in education. But a fully totalitarian system requires that all other potential obstacles to that process should also be eliminated. Parliament, as the legislative arm of the constitution, has for several hundred years been the bulwark against a totalitarian executive. It has even lopped heads off in the exercise of that function. But since the late 1980s, parliament has been required to deal with a blizzard of complex and often poorly drafted legislation. So far as it affects education, that legislation has had one underlying, never stated but ever present, objective: to confer on the Secretary of State, without the need for him to refer to anyone else, something close to absolute decision-making powers in relation to all aspects of education in England. During the legislative process itself, it has become evident that few members of parliament understand the significance of what they have allowed to happen or, when they do, apart from a few skirmishes in the House of Lords by peers with experience of the school system, have felt disposed to challenge the implications of an individual minister being granted unfettered powers of this order. So far as education is concerned, parliament’s reaction to the unrestrained use of the executive powers it has granted to the Secretary of State has been feeble. As an effective bulwark against a totalitarian executive, parliament has legislated itself out of it historical role in the constitution.

Until the late 1980s, the civil service and HMI worked alongside each other in playing an important and creative part in the formation of educational policy. HMI were seen as ‘the eyes and ears of the Department’ . Well led at Deputy Secretary level, HMI were able to offer informed advice to ministers and to their administrative colleagues . When a diminished group of HMI left the Department and became part of Ofsted in 1992, it was assumed that their advice would remain available and still be required by ministers and officials in the Department. That did not happen. When the close involvement of HMI with the Department ended, senior civil servants might have expected that, in the absence of HMI, ministers would rely on them for educational advice. That does not seem to have happened either. Instead there has been an influx of advisers chosen by successive Secretaries of State. Though there have been occasional exceptions, most of these individuals have been no more administratively competent or better informed on the workings of the education system than the ministers they have been invited to advise. That may be one reason why the published material emerging from the Department in recent years has increased in quantity but plummeted in quality. The reduction of the role of the civil service and of HMI in providing advice to ministers means that neither is now close to the core of decision making in education.

Teacher unions used to play an influential part in educational decision-making. That is no longer so. For several years, there have been systematic efforts by successive governments to diminish the role of the unions, sometimes by rather childishly declining to attend their conferences but, more seriously, by assuming that anything teachers or union leaders write or say is out of self-interest rather than from a genuine wish to improve the quality of education This is unfortunate and untrue. Now that the decline of local authorities’ engagement with education has left them with little to say, the thinking about the purpose and practice of education published by teachers’ unions has been consistently superior to the publicity material issued by the Department for Education or in reports from Ofsted, in its role as an agency designed to enforce what government requires schools to do.

Historically, the universities have influenced education by the examinations students are required to pass to gain entry to them. That influence remains strong. Universities also have the capacity to undertake research of high quality into educational matters. University-based research tends to have widely-framed terms of reference and to be peer reviewed. Its published findings sometimes conflict with assumptions on which existing government policies are based. In recent years, governments have, perhaps for this reason, often found it more convenient to rely on research, with narrowly drawn terms of reference, commissioned from private companies. Over the years, universities have also been given increased responsibility for the initial and subsequent training of teachers. Recent governments have come to believe, encouraged by elements in the press whose journalists rarely visit or talk to students at the institutions they discuss, that universities are a subversive influence The truth is that universities work closely with schools and colleges on how and what to teach and do so strictly in accordance with any current statutory requirements. But another main function of a university, when dealing with education or anything else, is to challenge students to think: in this instance to think about and discuss systematically why they are teaching what they are teaching in the way they are teaching it and then relating that to how different children or students learn at different stages in their development. A teaching profession that is encouraged to think hard about what it is doing and to place it in some historical context does not sit well with any Secretary of State – and there have been several – who believes the position automatically affords insight into how and why certain elements of the curriculum are best taught. The present incumbent’s decision to remove much of the responsibility for teacher education from universities, though likely to affect the international standing of teacher qualifications obtained in England, is therefore not unexpected.

The law remains a bulwark against certain forms of totalitarian decision making by ministers. Totalitarianism is not just a constitutional matter, it is a state of mind. Judicial decisions against unlawful ministerial conduct increasingly arouse acute ministerial displeasure . So too does dissent in any form. That same state of mind affects attitudes to the Churches. By reason of the number of the schools they sustain, the churches remain an important component in English education. Although England is no longer a church going society it is still one where important Christian principles are widely and sincerely held. That it is wrong to deceive people or to tell lies are two such principles. These conflict with the notion, evident in the pronouncements of some politicians, that the process of election entitles them to do whatever they want even when that conflicts with what they promised the electorate to do or to refrain from doing before being elected. When the archbishop of Canterbury recently pointed out the moral dimension of political behaviour that amounts to a deception of the electorate, he was criticised for so doing. The archbishop could have pointed out that the electorate has never been invited to vote for a government that seeks to induce or require all schools in England to become directly contracted to the Secretary of State as academies. The electorate were told that schools would ‘have the chance’ to apply for that status, but that is altogether a different matter. No political party has chosen to notice what has amounted to this deception of the electorate. That the archbishop was prepared to draw attention to it was greatly to his credit.

Recent events indicate how influential the press has become. Government is London based, and it is London based newspapers with a national circulation that cause politicians to believe that the whole country is swayed by the opinions those papers express. Exaggerated fear of losing the support of the Press affects the decision making process of governments. It causes them to refrain from doing what they know they ought to do and to persist in doing what they know to be unwise. As a class, politicians appear to have decided that the press cannot be abolished or ignored so it best serves their interests for it to be propitiated by being seen to be influenced by its opinions.

What of the future? England’s move towards a totalitarian form of decision-making in education has developed over the forty years since the early 1970s. That movement is now accelerating. In some areas of the country, it may be irreversible. In education, clustered round the dominant leadership of a Secretary of State, a small group of mostly unelected people have taken control. The distinguishing characteristics of the members of this group is that they have strong opinions, remain resolutely unaware of their own inadequacies and have little respect for the involvement of anyone other than themselves in decisions about education. The first problem this has raised has already been referred to. It is that none of the existing parliamentary parties seems disposed to arrest the rapidity of the move to totalitarian decision-making in education. The second problem is that, although totalitarian systems can sometimes have the merit of making the trains run on time, in England it has had the opposite effect. During the past forty years, the educational system in England has done a few things well: notably in its provision for early years education and in providing wider access to new forms of higher education. But schools and much of the other functions of the education service have suffered from a series of time consuming and poorly conceived initiatives, accompanied by a surfeit of pronouncements devoid of content. Mr Blair’s ‘Education, education, education’, the intellectual equivalent of ‘ hip, hip, hooray’, was just one example of this. More seriously, the belief that competition always improves standards could not survive any experience of how competition actually works in schools or elsewhere. Competition between two broadly equal schools, teams or individuals can bring out the best in both. Competition between unequal teams, schools or individuals nearly always has the opposite effect. Competition between cities or whole countries can improve performance, but that in turn requires there to be a cooperative effort within those cities or countries. Over the past twenty years, the result of concentrating decision making in too few and too inexperienced hands has led to initiative by sudden impulse and a whole clutter of unexamined assumptions about what is important in education, all accompanied by a systematic unwillingness to admit error. It has also led to alarming levels of inefficiency. In the thirty years between 1944 and 1974, within strict cost limits, something like seven and a half million school places were provided by local authorities, supported by able officials within the Department of Education. The hugely expensive efforts national governments have made in recent years to provide a few thousand school places are compelling evidence of a collapse in administrative competence and of political leadership unaware of its own inadequacy.

A third problem is the potentially irreversible nature of what has happened. Even if a new government wished to restore a degree of local authority decision-making in education, in an increasing number of areas there is now no local authority system politically and administratively able to hand it back to. For this and other reasons, in some areas the educational services local authorities provide outside the school system, such as a careers service, a library service or an adult education service, are fragmented, inadequately funded and approaching dereliction. In such areas, there is no obvious way forward for the education service in local government as it is at present constituted. In 1870, parliament responded to a fragmented and inefficient education system in a major Education Act. Something of the same order may soon be necessary. The final problem relates to the future. Both the creation and the destruction of totalitarian systems have traditionally been accomplished by a rattle of gunfire. In England, the development of totalitarian decision making in education has been gradual and any rattle of gunfire unlikely. That suggests a deeply unsettled future. The present Secretary of State doubtless intends no harm while managing to do a great deal. But apart from the confusion he will be leave behind, his major legacy will be the virtually untrammelled power he will have put into the hands of his successors. How a less benign successor will deal with dissent is just one of many uncertainties. But the prospects for a dissenting school – or a whole range of schools of a kind that a future Secretary of State happens to dislike – look bleak. Henry 11 had armed knights to deal with dissent; a future Secretary of State, armed with terminable funding contracts, could find these quite as effective.

England is now well on the way to having the most totalitarian as well as one of the most inefficiently managed schools system in Europe. In the much maligned 1960s, people came from all over the world to learn from what was being achieved in the best of England’s publicly-funded, local authority maintained, schools. Few come now. In 1969 the Royal Commission on local government issued a warning : ‘if local self government withers, the roots of democracy grow dry.’ Over the past forty years, intentionally or otherwise, that withering of democratic involvement in education, both nationally and locally, is what parliament has allowed to happen and successive governments are now close to achieving. P.A.N Oct 2011
PAN 21.09.2011

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