Priests, parents or the state: who should be responsible for children’s education? – Part 2: the role of the state

You can read Part 1 ‘The role of religion’ here.

The first important step is to point out the difference between the state and the government. This is from what Robin Alexander wrote in the Cambridge Primary Review Trust blog at the time of the 2015 General Election.

the checks and balances vital to education in a democracy have been swept away, and without local mediation schools have little protection from ministers’ caprice, megalomania or what NAHT’s Russell Hobby calls their ‘crazy schemes’ – those back-of-the-envelope bids for media headlines that teachers and school leaders are forced by legislation or Ofsted’s compliance checks to implement, regardless of their cost to children’s education or teachers’ self-esteem.

Little appears to have changed, except for the worse. The education regulator, OfSTED once claimed to be independent of the government, but that is now so obviously ridiculous that the government’s ‘education policy enforcer’ no longer talks in such terms.

My colleague, John Mountford, has long argued for the creation of a permanent ‘National Education Commission’ to prevent meddling by ideologically driven arms of the government. But if we don’t want governments interfering in the education system, what should be the role of the state? It largely comes down to providing the public money to implement and fund an education system guaranteeing that all children have access to taxpayer funded free education in good state schools. In Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland this is now a devolved responsibility.

However, as I write this, PM candidate Dominic Raab has stated that in his view marketisation of the education system has not gone far enough and that he would favour allowing new educational businesses to run our schools on a ‘for profit’ basis. It is hard to see how a new National Education Commission could prevent an elected government taking such a step if that was the government policy.

The Education Act of 1944 was steered through Parliament by R.A. Butler, the Education Minister of the National Government.  The Act provided free secondary education for all pupils. At the end of World War II, the government, still in shock from the recent rise of fascism in Europe, was anxious to prevent the ideological takeover of education that had happened in Germany.  Similar takeovers had taken place in Italy, the Soviet Union and Imperial Japan. Although of a very different order of concern,  the policy of the present UK government to impose ‘British Values’ on our schools, still strikes a discordant note with me.

For these reasons the 1944 Education Act deliberately removed the government from any role in the state education system beyond paying for it. The provision and administration of schools was devolved to Local Education Authorities (LEAs), which were the responsibility of elected County Councils or their urban equivalents. The schools themselves enjoyed a great deal of autonomy in relation to what was taught and the teaching methods used, including the use of corporal punishment, which persisted until 1987. Individual teachers also enjoyed a high degree of autonomy in relation to their classroom practice. While there was no National Curriculum, LEAs exercised a great deal of influence and support through the maintenance of large teams of Advisors. Schools had Boards of Governors, but these usually had little influence, with meetings often taking the form of  a pleasant discussion with the Head over tea served by polite and able girls conscripted by the Home Economics Department. Regulation of standards was the responsibility of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Schools (HMI), which then, unlike OfSTED now, was truly independent of government and greatly respected by schools and their teachers.

In my view, while there was need for reform, there is a great deal to be said in favour of LEAs. These were overseen by elected local councillors appointed to the powerful Education Committee. LEAs were led by a ‘Chief Education Officer’ or ‘Director of Education’. This post was always held by a person with professional experience at a high level in the world of education. Social Services Departments were separate, led by a Social Services Director.

In my view the abolition of LEAs following the 1988 Education Reform Act and the consequent marketisation of the education system has been disastrous in terms of both access to local schools and educational standards.

I very much support John Mountford’s campaign for a National Education Commission, but I do have concerns about some practical issues.

How would the members be appointed?

How could a government be prevented from packing it with its ideological stooges?

Do enough University Departments of  Education and Professors of Education to provide expertise and academic guidance now exist?

I correspond with Professor Michael Shayer. On this last point he suggests not. Where are the likes of Ted Wragg, Maurice Holt and Philip Adey?

Comments please!

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