New Visions Group’s response to David Blunkett’s report

As part of the UK Labour Party’s policy review, former Secretary of State for Education, David Blunkett was asked to report on education structures and functions in the UK education system and “the raising of standards for all”. David Blunkett’s report was published in April 2014. It is available for download here on Labour’s “Your Britain” website

This is the New Visions Group response. It has been presented to the the UK’s Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Tristram Hunt.

References in the text to Michael Gove are of course to the former Secretary of State for Education who left that post in July 2014 to be succeeded by Nicola Morgan MP

The New Visions Group (NVG) welcomes David Blunkett’s report, Putting Students and Parents First. His report provides a welcome analysis of the problems at the core of the academy programme as this has been developed by Michael Gove. There is a fundamental difference in approach between those who believe that the dominant purpose of education is to equip young people to become productive units within an economic framework and those, such as the NVG, who remain committed to the belief that schools should be encouraged to provide far more than that. Examination success is important but so too are the many other things which good schools can offer that examinations do not measure: notably encouragement of individual talent in a wide range of activities such as the expressive arts. It is education of this kind that the best schools provide, working with others when appropriate, as their contribution to creating a well-adjusted, prosperous and politically mature society. The New Visions Group therefore welcomes David Blunkett’s commitment to this approach in his foreword:

“Schools and colleges are not factories to instil facts, and then hope that young people somehow make sense of them and become functioning and creative adults. We have to provide the opportunity to build those thinking or critical skills, which allow the analytical faculties to develop – to be able to challenge, as well as to make sense of the ever-changing world around us. … Children need to learn how to reason and how to study, and not just how to display their knowledge of acquired facts. Equally, developing the character of the individual child and their growth into an active and constructive citizen is vital to the future of all of us.”

We are, however, not convinced that, despite its many merits, the report’s recommendations cover all that is now required to achieve an education service which is responsive and democratically accountable to the communities in which our children grow and learn.

The New Visions Group agrees with David Blunkett’s view that “A 73 page contract between the Secretary of State and an academy not only makes a mockery of any claim to ‘localism’, but drives a coach and horses through practical and meaningful accountability.”

Michael Gove’s declared aim is that eventually all schools in England should be contracted to him as academies. The NVG believes that the ‘freedoms’ associated with the academy programme should be made available to all well-managed schools. It is aware of the fact that securing those freedoms does not require thousands of contracts with the Secretary of State or, indeed, contracts with anyone else. A system of legally binding contacts between all schools and a single government minister, over which even parliament has no control, directly conflicts with the principle of democratic accountability. No other country in Europe employs a system of that kind to manage all its schools. The NVG hopes and believes that a Labour Secretary of State would not want all English schools to be contracted to him and that he would wish to discuss, with all interested parties, alternative ways of securing the right of every well run school to manage itself.

The report cites and endorses the opinion of David Wolfe QC, part of which appears as an Appendix to the report. David Wolfe has written extensively on the problems caused by the process of education law making by contract and has often repeated the basic legal and constitutional principle that in law making Parliament is supreme and that such problems as may exist in restoring a democratic law making process to replace the law by contract approach are political and not legal. The New Visions Group has presented the same argument, and urges the Labour Party to commit itself to restoring, without disturbing the day to day work of the schools, a clear and democratically accountable process for the management of all existing schools and for the creation of new ones.

It is important to emphasise that in advocating a restoration of democratic accountability the New Visions Group does not express a wish to recreate a world that is gone and which now has very few supporters. On the contrary our objectives are forward looking to an education service which satisfies the needs and demands of the 21st century. Democratic accountability in education is not for us a notion only of the past. We believe that democratic accountability is as essential to the health of the education service now and in the future as it has been in the past and that the drift towards a centrally controlled agenda with politically defined standards is, in the long term, inherently unstable and unsuitable to meet those needs and demands.

We are aware that education does not for the present figure high on the list of voter concerns. We do not, however, believe that this means that everything is generally thought to be fine in education. Rather we treat this as evidence that parents and others have for the time being become disconnected from the education debate whilst economic and financial considerations occupy them and whilst Michael Gove’s continuing stream of superficially attractive but evidentially unsupported initiatives are being tried and tested. We are sure that as problems of recession fade and the lack of substance in Michael Gove’s education free-for-all shows itself, as it is even now beginning to show, voter attention will return to education. Labour has very good reason to demonstrate clarity and foresight in its policies with an appeal to the electorate that is bold and forward looking with democratic accountability at its core. Parents are neither attracted by politically doctrinaire theories of education management nor by politically spun descriptions of educational institutions. As recent elections have shown, they are rather more confused and switched off by politicians hurling insults and charges at each other. Parents and communities want good well run local schools in which they can participate with trust and confidence in the leadership of the school and the progress and positive development of their children. Labour’s focus should be on achieving that objective.

Quite what structure of democratic accountability should be presented to the electorate is the subject of a debate which has already begun and which will be ongoing. There are many arguments in favour of re-attaching education to revitalised local authorities, and it is certainly true that parents and local communities will be better able to relate to familiar local authority structures. As one member of the New Visions Group has put it, it is hard to imagine a “stampede to the polling station” in direct elections for new regional or sub-regional education authorities.

Nonetheless it must equally be recognised that statutorily underpinned local authority management of education belongs to a time when education was essentially a “local” issue and it has clearly been a matter of national policy and concern at least since Labour’s Jim Callaghan gave his reforming Ruskin speech in 1976. Another member of the NVG with long and leading experience in local government doubts whether, in many cases, the existing local authority is “fit for purpose” to regain management functions in education.

Also the devolution away from local authorities of institutional management has been very successful and there is no real case for a retreat from the principle of institutional self-management in favour of local government.

The position of the New Visions Group is that whatever structures are devised, whether or not attached to familiar local authority structures, they should be education specific with a strategic role clearly distinguished from institutional self-management but with strategically based and centrally guided standards setting functions and backstop remedial powers of intervention. The concept of “education specific” authorities revisits the original concept of local education authorities constituted by local authorities but notionally and statutorily distinct. It should not necessarily be assumed that the members of these authorities would be directly elected by popular vote, but all of them should be accountable to an electoral constituency either directly or at only one stage removed.

Their strategic responsibilities should extend across the range of primary and secondary education, training and lifelong learning and they may also provide means and opportunities to secure strategic coherence with higher and further education sector institutions.

THE RECOMMENDATIONS
LOCAL OVERSIGHT AND SPREADING BEST PRACTICE

Area Education Panels and Directors of School Standards

The New Visions Group welcomes the proposal to restore accountability at local level. Particularly welcome is the recommendation to create local area Education Panels to be engaged in long term strategic planning including the approval of budgetary provision. The Group has consistently advocated a restoration of democratically accountable, education specific authorities with responsibility for strategic planning of the education service at local level.

The Group is not however persuaded by the proposal to create Directors of School Standards. We certainly agree that the Education Panels would need authoritative officers to secure and deliver their decisions, but we find the description of the role of the Directors of School Standards confusing and a potential source of uncertainty and conflict within the system.

First we doubt the title suggested for these officers. The report recognises the gains achieved by institutional self-management beginning in 1988. This runs directly contrary to the concept of an area officer whose title suggests that he or she will direct school standards. Second we are concerned about the proposed method of appointing the DSS. We do not see the point of having the shortlist selected by the office of the Schools Commissioner. This proposal seems to suffer from the same democratic deficit that the report elsewhere rightly criticises. Indeed it is far from clear to whom the DSS, once appointed, will be accountable.

The recommendation describes how and to whom he or she should report, but the emphasis placed on the ‘independence’ of the DSS suggests that this reporting falls short of real accountability. The role of the DSS is described as one of working with the Education Panel and other area authorities, but clearly not working for them. The DSS would apparently be independent of them all and without any clearly identifiable employer to which his or her responsibilities are owed. There is little if any democratic accountability in this arrangement.

The reasoning behind the proposal appears to be that only an independent officer can ensure that inadequate performance is effectively challenged without conflict of interest or loyalty. The New Visions Group believes that this reflects a political obsession which has gone far beyond what is actually necessary. When institutional self-management was first introduced in 1988, it was followed speedily by a highly centralised, top heavy system of inspection. This internally contradictory framework exemplified a lack of confidence on the part of politicians in their own commitment to devolution. It is an inconsistency which has adversely affected the education service ever since. There have been periods in which this inspection regime has been criticised by teachers as bullying, domineering and seriously damaging to morale. Although under its current leadership, OFSTED clearly demonstrates a commitment to a national education services for all and wins much approval from post inspection evaluations, teacher representatives remain antagonistic to the judgemental approach favoured by Michael Gove and his supporters.

The New Visions Group also supports institutional self-management. The problem is that this has not been clearly distinguished from the need for local strategic planning. David Blunkett’s proposals seem to us to continue the failure to make that distinction. We see the local area Education Panels as having the appropriate democratic validity as strategic planning bodies, their decisions then being implemented by the offices of Area Directors of Education Services whom they select and appoint.

It has seemed that politicians have unnecessarily added new layers to the education management structure in an effort to persuade the electorate that they are aggressively doing something about standards. Rival politicians struggle to outdo each other often with the result that the general public has no clear understanding of what standards are being discussed and what targets are being pursued.

Head teachers have first-line responsibility for ensuring the delivery of high standards in self-managed educational institutions. Some may from time to time need external support and assistance and there are long established mechanisms in an employment context to deal with teachers and head teachers who are proved to be unable to succeed, despite assistance. Occasionally there will no doubt be a need for external intervention to tackle inadequate performance of individual institutions, and there must be mechanisms available to the strategic authorities to achieve this. There can never be complacency about standards.

However, we do not think it necessary to focus new local area officers on standards. Now, we think, is the time for Labour to assert its confidence in the ability of self-managed educational institutions to deliver high standards, and we believe that the energies which politicians apply to outdo each other on ‘standards’ should be redirected towards supporting qualified teachers to do the job for which they have been well trained and to developing structures which have a significant impact on standards.

Education Community Trusts and Education Incubation Zones

Paragraph 5 of the summary of Recommendations promises that the proposal for Community Trusts to be established in partnership with the relevant Local Authority is “set out in detail in the chapter on Best Practice.” The same sentence appears where the recommendation is repeated in the body of the ‘Best Practice’ Chapter, but there does not appear in fact to be any more detailed description of the proposal.

Whilst we would strongly support measures to promote collaboration amongst schools, we admit to being confused by this proposal. A ‘trust’ is a legal concept which describes an arrangement by which people hold money and other property for someone else’s benefit. We understand a community trust to be a body made up of a group of people who collectively deal with money and other property for the benefit of a community. We understand how this is appropriate to community housing trusts but we do not understand its relevance and applicability to education and to schools. In particular we are unclear about whether it is intended that these community trusts should hold and distribute resources. If as the recommendation otherwise suggests, the objectives are to encourage partnerships and provide commonly accessible support services then, although again we whole-heartedly support the objective, we see nothing here which cannot be done by local authorities assisted by advisory panels constituted from representatives of local schools.

We are confused too that this proposal is limited in Recommendation 5 to community schools, but Recommendations 23-26 strongly urge a unifying simplification of the legal entity of schools together with a commonly applicable standardised system of supervision. Recommendation 26 seems specifically to include Academies within the proposed Community Trust framework. The New Visions Group has itself urged the restoration of democratically accountable strategic management covering all publicly financed schools and we believe that any measures designed to encourage collaboration should be part of that standardised approach.

We return to comment further on Recommendations 23-26 below.

The proposal to establish Education Incubation Zones obviously echoes the Education Action Zones established in 1998, the effectiveness of which was doubted by OFSTED in 2001. Whilst bearing in mind our wish to see an escape from the obsession with creating new layers to address ‘standards’, we do certainly support proposals to provide fixed period support and assistance to schools in specifically identified areas.

We comment further on Recommendations 8 and 9 in the context of our observations on Recommendation 23-26.

ENTITLEMENT TO HIGH STANDARDS AND FAIRNESS

We support the creation of an explicit statutory duty on local government to inform and support the interests of pupils and parents – but with two notes of caution.

First it has been the habit of government certainly since 1979 and perhaps earlier to secure the enactment of legislation which imposes duties and then to be self-congratulatory about having fulfilled a political commitment with no more to do. The practical realities are, of course, very different. We understand the constitutional practice in English law by which duties are imposed on public authorities where in other jurisdictions rights are conferred on individuals; but simply creating statutory duties often achieves very little by itself. They are very difficult, and certainly expensive for individuals, to enforce through the legal system and they are all too often put aside or modified in practice under pressure from financial or other more pressing considerations. More straightforward means of ensuring that local authorities actually fulfil this duty will be required.

Secondly this duty must be clearly expressed and put into effect as a community duty, elsewhere considered in the report as a form of fiduciary duty. It should not be taken as a licence to renew interference in self-managing institutional autonomies. It should therefore be expressed as a duty to support schools and other educational institutions in furtherance of the interests of pupils and parents.

The New Visions Group supports a reassessment of the targeting of the Pupil Premium and very enthusiastically endorses the recommendation on the need to ensure that properly qualified teachers oversee the learning process in [all] publicly funded institutions. We suspect that in using the word ‘oversight’ in this context David Blunkett has had in mind the legal authority given to High Level Teaching Assistants by a Labour government in 2003 to do ‘specified work’. The regulations granting this authority were in fact quite widely misused in efforts to legitimise teaching by unqualified persons at reduced cost. A future Labour Government should take steps to ensure that in practice as well as in law, unqualified persons should only be engaged in teaching work to support or assist the work of a qualified teacher and only under the supervision and direction of a qualified teacher.

The Group supports Recommendation 13. A key point here is to understand the distinction between generic ‘careers education’ which should be provided by schools, and individual ‘careers advice’ which should be available from other agencies for two important reasons. The range of knowledge and expertise required goes beyond what is reasonable to expect ordinary school teachers to acquire and maintain alongside another subject specialism; and because there is a potential conflict of interest in schools which encourage existing pupils to pursue options within their own curriculum offer instead of seeking wider opportunities elsewhere.

The Group supports Recommendation 14 in general terms, although it needs to be more clearly expressed. There is currently no difficulty in understanding the different roles of the LGO and the OSA in respect of school admissions. LGO exercises oversight of individual appeal mechanisms in respect of the School Admissions Appeals Code; whilst OSA rules on the compliance of admissions policies with the School Admissions Code. The important point is that the jurisdiction of both bodies should extend in the same way to all schools of whatever type. Similarly the role of SSD (or any other local body or individual) in respect of both bodies is similar. If satisfactory outcomes cannot be achieved by persuasion or consent the local authority/agency should refer the matter to the appropriate tribunal for formal resolution.

The Group fully supports Recommendations 15 – 17. The report correctly identifies the ways in which the 2010 position on schools admissions has been undermined and what will be necessary to recover the advances made by previous labour administrations.

The Group supports Recommendation 18. Although it would be even better to see the question of selection more fully addressed. The existence of a rump of grammar schools and those which retain permitted partial academic selection is increasingly anachronistic when all new schools (including the otherwise unsatisfactory ‘free schools’) are required to accept a comprehensive intake. More problematic still is the massive increase in covert social selection under various guises, by manipulation of catchment or feeder schools or on the pretext of religion, aptitude or parental choice.

FIDUCIARY DUTY

This is a rather odd chapter heading and somewhat inadequately explained in the first paragraph of the chapter. It’s a very old legal concept originally applied to land and property held on trust. Although the paragraph refers to the concept as one which “was used historically” to sum up requirements on the use of public money, it is actually very much alive and active as a legally effective tool for taxpayers to protest the ill-considered use of their contributions to the public purse.

It describes a duty to act solely in the interests of another person. The first paragraph of this chapter in David Blunkett’s Review report sets out how the duty is to be performed by public authorities, but omits to identify to whom the duty is owed – which is probably the more important feature of the legal principle. The simple answer is of course that the duty is owed to the tax paying community for whose benefit public finances are expended; but in circumstances in which all political parties claim a popular electoral mandate for what they do, it is no easy task to separate policy decisions which can be objectively considered to be ill-considered contrary to the legitimate interests of tax payers from those for which the policy makers can properly claim democratic electoral endorsement.
This chapter of David Blunkett’s report continues with a strong political case against what Labour considers to be Michael Gove’s ill-considered expenditures; but of course no court has passed judgement on whether Gove’s measures constitute unlawful breach of fiduciary duty and it is unfortunate that the Blunkett report appears to justify the recommendations contained in this chapter only on the basis that they amount to a more prudent use of public money. The New Visions Group believes that that the case in favour of these recommendations is stronger on educational grounds.

Recommendations 19-22 dealing with school places are therefore welcomed by the New Visions Group not only because they propose a much more efficient use of public money, but also because they offer exactly the kind of strategic management of educational provision at local level under democratically accountable control which the Group has advocated. We remain however doubtful about the involvement of multiple agencies, i.e. the local authorities, the Education Panels and the Directors of School Standards in the recommended process. David Blunkett’s report has already been criticised by its natural opponents for proposing the introduction of new overlapping bureaucracies and, whilst not aligning itself with those critics, the Group understands how the report’s recommendations are vulnerable to that charge. As suggested elsewhere in this commentary, we believe that strategic management should clearly be the responsibility of democratically accountable, education specific authorities at local level. This may be at the existing local authority level or more regional, but we see no reason for a multi-authority arrangement combining responsibility for education standards with strategic management of the service.

We give perhaps our strongest support to David Blunkett’s call for a standard framework for all publicly funded schools. (Recommendations 24-26 together with Recommendations 8 and 9) The idea that diversity and excellence is created by giving schools different descriptions and titles, and by constituting them under a variety of different forms of management and rules, is a public relations illusion. The most recently adopted title “free” schools, a description which has no statutory basis, is perhaps the clearest example of attractively spun language which has no real meaning. None of this changes the quality of teaching and leadership on which good education and the identification of a good local school crucially depends.

We regret the implied relegation of skills education below the “academic” which follows from the identification of Academies as the category of school to which parents should aspire for their children and we find it absurd that small primary schools in urban areas once proud to call themselves community schools, should now be grasping at the opportunity to promote themselves by a title that is still generally thought of as one reserved for narrow specialisms. It is as if the word “school” has become one to be avoided by anyone who thinks of themselves as aspirational. We believe that restoring a standardised framework is essential to achieving a strategically managed education service again not only for the prudent use of public money but also to provide genuine equality of opportunity. We will call on the next Labour Government to encourage confidence and pride in educational quality universally available and to take steps to sort out the “confusion, contradictions and complexity that exists over the legal situation of Schools in England.”

We go further. We are again confused by the fact that David Blunkett’s report strongly criticises the process of making law for the education service by 73 page funding agreements enforceable only by the contracting parties, but appears in Recommendation 26 to assume that this process will continue. The New Visions Group believes that it should not continue. It is a process that is surely inconsistent with the idea of a standardised framework for all schools for which no doubt there must be legislation subject to Parliamentary scrutiny. David Wolfe QC has repeatedly pointed out that which is well understood by lawyers i.e. that Parliament is supreme in the law making process and that therefore private contractual arrangements can be set aside in favour of a transparently democratic law making process in Parliament. The Group shares David Blunkett’s view that institutional self-management has brought many benefits. We do not seek a reversal of that approach. That is why we urge a clear distinction between institutional self-management and strategic management of the service at local level. But it is surely now clear that law making by private contract is not essential to achieve the objective of internal institutional autonomy.

THE LOCAL AREA

The New Visions Group welcomes Recommendations 27 to 29 calling for greater support to be given to school governing bodies, but the Group considers it no less essential that the opportunity is taken to redefine the role of governing bodies in the context of the other structural reforms being recommended. We believe that governing bodies continue to have a very important role to play in reflecting the wishes, aims and objectives of the community of which each school forms part. We believe however that this has been distorted since the concept of local management was introduced in the late 1980s.
We are aware of the legal convention that statutory duties must fall on bodies which are themselves constituted by or under statute rather than upon employed individuals. The result of applying this convention in the schools context has been to impose a very large number of complex legal obligations on governing bodies as collections of unpaid local community members, the large majority of whom have full time jobs and other commitments. Many of these obligations are technically and professionally specialised, so much so that the idea that they are actually performed by members of the governing body individually or collectively is simply unreal. The obvious truth is that they are actually performed by head teachers and other education professionals, and though generally these professionals are to be trusted with their tasks, the governing body’s capacity to require and oversee their performance is often extremely limited. The current Secretary of State’s centralisation of power has itself often seemed to result from a panicked realisation that devolution of power without support from full time personnel and other resources is fragile and potentially dangerous for children’s education. It is perhaps worth remembering that when local management was introduced it was accompanied by a highly centralised top down and aggressive system of inspection. This contradiction has been present in the education service for over 30 years.

The New Visions for Education Group now strongly urges that the burden of legislation on governing bodies should be much reduced and that many of the responsibilities which are currently statutory should be shifted into employment relationships so reflecting the obvious reality of how they are performed.
These measures should in turn enable governing bodies to concentrate with greater clarity on their important role of influencing the development of each school on behalf of its community.

THE CENTRE

The New Visions for Education Group welcomes the objective of the various recommendations in this Chapter to establish coherent and accessible regulatory structures with system wide authority. Again we emphasise that these regulatory structures must be underpinned by statute. We understand the now widespread political and economic philosophy which identifies government as commissioning public services from lightly regulated economically and commercially active institutions within the community. We do not as a group seek to adopt a politically partisan position in that debate. Our concern is for education and though we are aware of the volume of opinion supporting the commissioning approach, our view remains that the “commissioning” model is simply inappropriate for a public education service. It is obviously a model which sacrifices elected representative participation in the examination of the detail of public service regulations. Whatever the economic justification for that approach in other sectors, in education, particularly primary and secondary education, it simply does not fit. Education is too personal, too much of an emotional concern for parents and too vital for the welfare of the community as a whole.
So, we have argued elsewhere in this commentary that the core values by which the education service is regulated cannot simply be those of the Secretary of State and those with whom he or she chooses to enter into contracts. We do not now wish that local authorities or Directors of Standards should replace the Secretary of State as contracting parties acting on behalf of public bodies commissioning services.

The New Visions Group urges Labour to address public education as a service the legal regulation of which must first be given full and thorough examination by elected representatives in Parliament. The outcome should be a much simplified coherent, and, where necessary, flexible set of regulations, the implementation of which should be accessible and, when implemented wrongly, easily challengeable as clear legal entitlements of children, their parents and others in the community with genuine interest in education.

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