David Blunkett’s blueprint (interestingly this the colour of the cover of his report, a colour once associated with the Tories and not Labour) published yesterday has little to say in favour of local democracy. The Party that made sure the NHS was established on a national basis now seems determined to do the same for schooling. I have to declare that I am not unbiased in this debate as I am a Lib Dem County Councillor in Oxfordshire, and I firmly believe, at the very least, that primary education should remain a local democratic function whatever the fate of secondary and further education.
At the heart of David Blunkett’s proposals lies a new post of Director of School Standards (DSS):in reality a local commissioner for education reporting to a boss in Whitehall. However, with multi-borough and sub-regional officials, even “local” will mean many different things.
This new cadre of Labour bureaucrats will effectively remove any meaningful control over schooling from elected local authorities. The DSS, it is proposed, will monitor standards, and intervene where necessary; decide on new schools; and would have an un-elected panel to turn to for advice. The analogy with public health is used in the document, although, interestingly, public health was returned to local councils last year, with the director of Public Health making an annual report to the Council.
Indeed, Oxfordshire has decided to provide a school nurse for every secondary school from September, something presumably Mr Blunkett would not think it was the local authority’s job to decide.
The fact that some local authorities have been less good at providing schooling for some children is not, in my judgment, a reason to take education away from local authorities as a whole, and to reduce them to toothless husks of their former selves.
In Oxfordshire, there is an Education Scrutiny Committee that has an attainment working party reporting to it; and officers monitor standards and report progress. Councillors are concerned about standards – the same is true elsewhere. Councillors need the ability to intervene if things are going wrong. Most of the powers suggested in the Blunkett review can be provided to existing local authority directors without the need for a new bureaucracy, and the inevitable costs associated with it.
Furthermore the Blunkett Review flies in the face of what Labour said before Christmas about Police and Crime Commissioners: then their review, led by ex-Met Police Commissioner Lord Stevens, said PCCs, introduced in 2012, should be scrapped in 2016 and more power given to local councillors and local authorities. So, more power for councils over the police, but no power over schools now seems to be Labour’s inconsistent line.
Labour may understand the problem, and in part it was a problem created during their government, but their anti-democratic, centralist approach – under the guise of extending school-based, or in practice, groups of school based management – is not, in my judgment, the way forward. Providing a new ‘duty’ on local government to inform and support the interests of pupils and parents merely rubs salt in the wound.
There are, of course, good things in the other parts of the Review. The support for qualified and properly-trained teachers, improved careers advice, and a strengthening of the admissions code are all welcome. However, in the scale of things, you cannot escape the fact that at the heart of the Blunkett philosophy for schooling is a disregard for local democracy and an admiration for a managerialist approach.
Local councillors are much more accessible to parents that a Director of School Standards that may well be responsible for a sub-region. If the proposals in this blueprint make it into the election manifesto, it is Labour candidates that will have the biggest challenge in selling their party as interested in keeping education local come the general election next May.