Although politicians from the London parties routinely associate the words ‘education’ and ‘choice’, the thing most striking about their policies is that they offer the electorate no choice at all. Would you guess, from following the roll-out of academies and free schools, the constant undermining of local democratic choice, which party was in power? The transition from Labourtory to Torylabour is seamless.
(Note, however, that despite this unanimity there are no academies or free schools in Wales, where education policy is devolved. Welsh Labour and UK Labour are increasingly different parties. The choices offered therefore are not determined by what the party is called but by the milieu in which it operates, in Labour’s case by whether it has a nationalist rival to keep it true to its roots. An interesting lesson for Wessex!)
The parties are equally united in their enthusiasm for more taxpayer-funded faith schools, notwithstanding the recent scandal in Mercia that was absolutelypredictable and irrespective of whether it is the faith element that is actually key to standards. On Michael Gove’s watch, a deal with the Church of England will allow it to incorporate former community schools with no religious character into its Diocesan Academy Chains, with bishops having the power to appoint governors. The non-religious choice is being squeezed out as provision is outsourced. In our ruralareas, where the CofE dominates primary provision, choice doesn’t exist and never has.
Does the faux-Maoist mantra of constant revolution in the classroom and the abdication of any common responsibility chime with public opinion any more than the similar churning of the NHS? No, it doesn’t. According to a YouGov poll recently, only a third of the adult population approves of State funding for faith schools; nearly half actively disapproves. Meanwhile, free schools are being desperately flogged. Planning rules have been ripped up, to allow children to be herded into redundant cinemas, factories and prisons, with local communities barred from commenting on anything besides noise and traffic. All because local communities, through their councils, might otherwise sabotage the Coalition’s flagship policy. So if free schools can’t pass the local democracy test, let’s not have local democracy.
Here’s a radical decentralist alternative. One, abolish Gove’s job, along with his entire department. Two, devolve all schools spending to councils. Three, let them make every decision that cannot be made at the level of the school itself. Decisions such as planning and building new schools in line with population changes, schools they are currently banned from initiating, as totalitarian liberalism insists they be. Or making provision for area-wide services, such as educational psychology, the music service and, where cost-effective, school meals and transport. Heads should be able to find better things to do than waste their time juggling budgets for outside contractors. Four, tell the evangelical bishops and the misogynist imams to fund their own hobbies henceforth unless they can fairly win control of their council first. Five, scrap academies, free schools and all other experiments in segregationist child abuse and reinstate community-accountable education. Six, for a proper level playing field, give all schools the same freedoms that these cotton-wooled cuckoos enjoy. And above all, seven, remind voters that the way to get rid of a bad Labour council with destructive education policies isn’t to transfer all its powers to a bad Tory minister in London. It’s to vote for real change.
It was always predicted that centralisation would prove too unwieldy to work and last week, with half of all secondary schools now rebranded as academies, Gove had to fess up. The idea of running tens of thousands of schools directly from Whitehall has been abandoned. It will be replaced by eight regional bodies, to be known as ‘Headteacher Boards’ (HTBs). What’s the betting that there’ll be a ‘South West’ and a ‘South East’? And what happens to the viability of each HTB if the density of academies / free schools versus traditional arrangements varies from region to region according to what’s popular locally? You know, that choice thing.
Two black marks for the price of one. Not just an unaccountable, self-regulating firewall of a bureaucracy to save the Education Secretary’s skin when the wheels finally come off the three-party liberal bandwagon. Worse than that. One that is neither central nor local but, yes, regional. How off-message can you be? Why, even readers of the Torygraph are bemused by the ramifications. What does the future now hold for Gove? Detention, or expulsion? We know what report we’d like to write.