The Guardian reports today that the Government is to end its centralised control of schools, abandoning one of New Labour's most significant education reforms.
Details are still sketchy, as this news - like that about school mergers earlier this week - comes from DCSF leaks, not an actual bill. (A practice which the new Speaker will hopefully come down on strongly). From what has been leaked though, it appears that:
"schools will no longer have to rely on centralised national strategies for support in teaching literacy and numeracy. Instead they will able to choose from a range of suppliers or work together to improve pupils' basic skills.Primary schools in England have been expected to teach English and
maths according to centralised guidelines set down by national literacy
and numeracy strategies for more than 10 years.These give detailed plans for teachers on what to convey to pupils
throughout the school year, with an expectation that there should be
daily lessons in reading, writing and arithmetic." (BBC website)
"... money will be redirected to schools to spend on forging
networks with neighbouring schools and buying in their own advisers to
help them drive up teaching standards and exam results. Good schools
will be expected to federate with lower-performing schools to help them
improve. Schools will still be able to teach the literacy and numeracy
hours, but there will be no central bureaucracy to support it.
The changes are designed to end duplication in support for schools,
which currently have an array of consultants from the local authority
and the national strategies to help them improve. Instead, schools will
be able to employ consultants directly to advise them, and increasingly
the consultants will be other practising headteachers.
national strategies are credited with a substantial improvement in
school test results in the period after they were introduced, but that
success has stalled. They were heavily criticised by the Commons
education select committee, which concluded that what and how schools
can teach under the programmes is too heavily prescribed. It said: "At
times schooling has appeared more of a franchise operation, dependent
on a recipe handed down by government rather than the exercise of
professional expertise by teachers." (The Guardian)
Michael Gove, the shadow education secretary, has promised Conservative support if the White Paper is as radical as leaks suggest. Moreover the NUT - perhaps proving me wrong in my suggestion that their support is rarely a good sign - has said that many would welcome "the dropping of the top down imposed strategies".
Just as with the potential school merger plans, this news should be welcomed, albeit very cautiously. Judgement should be reserved until the details are released next week, and if past form counts for anything, Ed Balls and DCSF are odds on to make these reforms (great in principle) irrelevant in practice. Damaging even. But, giving them the benefit of the doubt for now, the philosophy underpinning these proposals - returning power to schools and teachers - is spot on.
Don't be fooled by suggestions that Ed Balls has "masterminded" these plans out of some sort of commitment to localism and school empowerment though. No one is capable of such a radical conversion. Money, as is often the case, drives these reforms, as they could save the Government up to £100m a year on its contract with the private company Capita, which delivers the national strategies.
Bankruptcy is often a catalyst for reform; leaner, more effective and efficient services emerge from a brush with administration. It's not the way anyone would have wanted them to learn, but the fiscal strategy chosen by Balls and Brown a decade ago - the one which now burdens the UK with public sector borrowing of £175 billion - may now force them to accept the logic of a leaner state. In education, as in health, this doesn't have to mean fewer teachers, worse schools or diminished ambition. It simply means less government, less layers of bureaucracy. So the state's fiscal crises may have a silver lining, of sorts. But only if Balls (and his colleagues) is really brave enough to turn his back on his instincts and begins to trust professionals and people to deliver public services.