A Liberating Idea, an Incomplete Policy

Article excerpt


The new Government's education policy is based on a beguilingly simple idea: give schools greater freedom. Ministers want to allow state schools to become independent academies, liberated from the control of local councils. They also intend to encourage parents, social entrepreneurs and charities to set up their own schools and run them in the manner they see fit.

Liberalising the provision of education is an attractive idea, as well as a simple one. Labour did good things for our schools, in particular the increase in funding and resources. But its habit of trying to micromanage classrooms from Whitehall was a terrible bane, demoralising teachers and, ultimately, harming children's education. The argument for allowing individual schools freedom to decide their own ethos, to digress from the curriculum and to pay good teachers more is a powerful one.

But there are problems with the Government's simple idea, which have not been adequately addressed. There is a disconcerting vagueness about the lines of accountability in the new educational landscape. If new "free" schools are to be given public money, they will need to be monitored to see that the taxpayer is getting value for money and students are getting a satisfactory education. But who will perform this policing role? Normally, that would be the job of local education authorities (LEAs). Yet academies and "free" schools will be free from the oversight of LEAs. That function will apparently instead fall to the Department for Education. If a "free" school gets a bad inspection report, will it be for the Education Secretary to decide whether or not it should close? That would be a strange position for a Government which wants to devolve decision- making to a local level to find itself in.

There are further tensions. The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, believes in traditional educational values. …