A Permanent Revolution

Article excerpt

Just keeping up with the reforms now being outlined in the United Kingdom, and in England in particular, is a full-time job. At the time of writing, details were still emerging about a vast array of changes in the way public services operate, with implications not just for education, but for health care, social services, and welfare. At the same time, bitterly contested proposals to revolutionize higher education funding already are well under way.

The underlying philosophy is clear enough. The government that formed last May, led by the Conservative Party, wants to remodel government services along market lines. Private providers and voluntary organizations will be encouraged to run services traditionally offered by the state.

The ministers have pledged to reduce the power of interim tiers of public sector management--local authorities in education and management trusts in health--while handing more control to "frontline" school principals and family doctors to make decisions, including whether to use private companies.

Critics say that this is being done while the central tier of government, based in London, retains or even tightens its grip on the overall system.

Shifting Power

In education, some of the most contentious policies appear both to devolve power to schools or groups of parents and to open the way for more private providers to come in and run institutions. Two new laws aim to encourage every school to become an "academy," similar to U.S. charter schools, which are independent of the local authority (LA). LAs are run by elected councils and traditionally have overseen state schools.

Since the general election last year, every school deemed by inspectors to be "outstanding" has had the power to apply to Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove to become an academy, gaining more control over its curriculum and its admissions and no longer having to abide by national pay-and-conditions contracts for staff. The government will eventually extend this opportunity to all schools.

Having private sponsors run academies has been a big part of the policy since academies were authorized. Initially, under the previous Labour government, this was done only in deprived areas, and these schools needed the backing of their local authorities. But the ministers have launched a policy known as "free schools" that gives groups of parents or teachers, faith-based groups, and private organizations the chance to set up a state-funded school, subject to Gove's approval. This policy has links to the U.S. charter school movement and also to a similar movement in Sweden in the 1990s.

This policy is highly controversial, but it currently is relatively small-scale. By March, only 40 proposals had been approved, though, as I wrote in this column, there were plans for up to 10 free schools in one small East London borough.

Other changes include a review of England's national curriculum, moves to reduce the influence of university teacher education departments, and an investigation into our testing system. And all this is taking place against a background of large budget cuts both for the local authorities and for the central grants that directly support particular education programs.

Advocates of the free-schools policy say it will free professionals from stifling centralized bureaucracy and bring private-sector dynamism to state-funded services. …