There are at least two facets to the Birmingham story. One, mostly catching the headlines today, is about extremism; the other is about governance. Birmingham is our second largest city, with what looks like a generally centralised approach to governance from City Hall. Since most of the schools caught up in the row are academies, with only one apparently being a maintained school, Birmingham can claim ‘not our fault gov’ if you believe that academisation, started under Labour and pursued with vigour by Mr Gove, absolves a local authority from any involvement in the running of such schools. Personally, I don’t, but it shows what can happen when a system of education governance is systematically weakened over time by denigrating the role of one participant, in this case local authorities, and talking up the important of Whitehall.
When the discussions about how we educate our young people have subsided, and these discussions are important, especially when communities live in specific neighbourhoods, as I have known since a childhood being brought up on the borders of Stamford Hill and its orthodox Jewish community, the issue of effective governance will remain to be decided. Does education in London work better because education is divided between the different boroughs, whereas in our metropolitan cities of the midlands and the north there has been since 1974 one large local authority, and several relatively small ones, whether in Merseyside, Greater Manchester or West Yorkshire.
Realistically, the span of control is important; too small, and overheads become too expensive, especially without a geographical integrity common to local authorities: this is something some academy chains may well now be finding out. On the other hand, too large, and without sub-divisions, such as the divisional structure used before London was broken up into its boroughs, and there is a risk of a lack of oversight. This is especially true when resources for administration are seen as an unnecessary waste of money; a view strongly peddled by successive Tory administrations, and the last Labour government. In education, handling control of finance to schools just made certain most oversight would be neutered.
So why does all this matter? Well, apart from the mess the governance of education is in at present, there is the issue of eradicating illiteracy and innumeracy within a generation, highlighted by Mr Gove over the weekend, possibly as a diversionary tactic to his other problems. After all, what government doesn’t aspire to do so, and why hasn’t he, as Secretary or State, had a plan to do so over the past four years? Why has creating academies and free schools been more important? Governance matters in eradicating failure, such as illiteracy, because planning is involved.
Last week we celebrated one of the major events of planning in the last century; the ‘D’ day invasion of Europe. Imagine saying to a group of regiments, and a bunch of ship’s captains, just work out your own plan of attack and then get on with it. Planning isn’t something Mr Gove is good at; take the introduction of Computer Science instead of IT. Because academies don’t have to follow the National Curriculum, many may have just ignored the change because they already had staff teaching the subject, and no vacancy to recruit a different specialist. Where is the follow through from Whitehall?
Ideas are a start, but not enough. A good Department has ideas, knows what is happening, and manages the outcomes. Perhaps that explains why our education system hasn’t been world class. Too many ideas, and not enough effective action.