The Blunkett Review – what do we know so far?

So in today’s Guardian we have the first definitive hints about what the Blunkett review might contain. An article of this kind inevitably lacks detail – and in this world the devil is certainly in the detail. But some shape is beginning to emerge with some encouraging features but with two big issues not yet addressed. Significant parts of what is proposed are in line with the SEA’s submission to the review (which can be found at http://www.socialisteducation.org.uk/news/do-we-still-need-local-authorities).

The rhetoric is in many ways predictable. Focussing on confusion and incoherence and so talking about “putting the glue back into the system” is politically astute. “Not putting the clock back” is a bit more tiresome as is the reference to not going back to “local authority control of schools” – not something we’ve seen since the 1980’s. But politicians need always to be going forwards and anyway New Labour is hopelessly compromised by its own contribution to the undermining of local democracy in education. So talk of a new way forward probably makes sense.

The core of the article is about the establishment of a new middle tier. The areas of responsibility for it sound about right – “spotting failure, monitoring admissions, commissioning services, and ensuring financial accountability. They would also encourage collaboration between schools so that they learn from one another’s success.” Place planning could be higher profile but it’s probably fair to assume that it would be there. Crucially, the new middle tier would deal with all kinds of school rather than perpetuate the current divide as Gove proposes.

The planning unit is proposed to be the sub region. This is a view that has gathered quite a bit of support as the review process has gone along. It starts from the view that we have a lot of very small local authorities – starting from the abolition of met counties and continuing through the creation of small new unitaries. Size matters in two ways – one is cost and efficiency. We know there will be no new money – larger authorities will be able to afford expertise and will avoid duplication.

But more importantly, larger units provide more scope for schools in similar situations to co-operate. One reason why London Challenge worked was because it was run on a much broader canvas than a single borough. You’re more likely to able to find the expertise you need and a partner that’s compatible if looking across a larger area.

Be in no doubt there will be some political grief here. Local authorities that have continued to be effective won’t take well to being subsumed into a larger unit. Authorities run by different parties will have to find a common way forward if they are going to co-operate in larger units.

But there is a strong case for saying that the benefits outweigh the risks. What would also make sense is to see how this would fit into a broader sub-regional structure covering economic development, police, further education and skills and passenger transport with substantial devolved budgets from the centre.

So then the gaps – no one should assume that these won’t be addressed in the full report but as yet there are no hints. First is the nature of the new sub-regional bodies. It’s crucial that they are based in local democratic structures and aren’t – like Gove’s chancellors – an appointed group of the great and the good. There must be ways for local communities to have their say. These new authorities must not be just the creatures of Whitehall – and that means giving them the space to do things their own way and not just conforming to a national blueprint.

Secondly, there is nothing on how to put all kinds of school onto a level playing field. It’s crucial that the opportunity is taken to address the differences in legal status, funding, powers and duties between different kinds of schools. We should also be sorting out the complex and wasteful administrative systems that have been created to try and run some schools from Whitehall. And of course there is the issue of unaccountable academy chains which are both an offence against democracy and an obstacle to genuine school autonomy.

So overall, an encouraging start but still work in progress and still the need to focus on making this a really comprehensive process that will restore fairness and coherence to the system.

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2 Comments on “The Blunkett Review – what do we know so far?”

  1. David Pavett says:

    Are there “some encouraging features but with two big issues not yet addressed” in the Guardian report? Do they suggest that “Significant parts of what is proposed are in line with the SEA’s submission to the review”? I wish I could see it.

    For me Blunkett’s “Not putting the clock back” rhetoric is worse than tiresome. It is the ‘get out of doing anything fundamental to the structures set up by the Tories’ card’. Blunkett’s claim that “There is no way in which we can turn the clock back, even if we wanted to” is demonstrable nonsense. Even Stephen Twigg had proposed “putting the clock back” to the extent that local authorities would be allowed to create new schools. Saying that it is impossible to turn the clock back means, in effect, that in major respects Gove sets the baseline for Labour policies.

    Will the Report make the case for “not putting the clock back” and not going back to “local authority control of schools” or will the rhetoric be thought to be sufficient argument? My money is on the latter. It also is worth noting that Blunkett is telling us what Labour will and won’t do as a consequence of his report even before it is completed. How does that work?

    A middle tier of some sort is necessary but this is is no great breakthrough since nearly everyone is agrees. Running everything from Westminster was never a viable long-term proposition and I doubt that Gove ever saw it as such. On the other hand this central control required for the carrying out the Gove school revolution at the speed with which it has been conducted. Now, he too wants some decentralisation.

    So how do Tory and Labour middle tier plans shape up? Key to the SEA argument in its submission to the Blunkett review is democratic participation and the use of existing structures of local democracy. That is precisely the element that is missing from Gove’s proposed Commissioners and, it would seem from the Guardian piece, Labour’s sub-regional bodies. Maybe the Blunkett Review will surprise us on this and propose a robust role for local democracy. Maybe but I’m not holding my breath. I agree when John says of middle tier administrations: “It’s crucial that they are based in local democratic structures … There must be ways for local communities to have their say”. I hope we will return to this issue when we have the Report.

    I agree that “Crucially, the new middle tier would deal with all kinds of school rather than perpetuate the current divide as Gove proposes”. This point brought to mind the a comment in the previous blog article about private schools: “David and George Kynaston rehearsed the miserable story of opportunities missed since the 1940’s to do something about this running sore in English education.” Do we have any reason to believe that this “miserable story” will not continue.

    I don’t see any reason to conclude that the educational work of local authorities has to be “subsumed” in larger structures. Would that be consistent with the SEA submission to the Blunkett review? Local authorities were not subsumed by the London Challenge. They worked within its framework while maintaining their identities as educational providers.

    If these key issues, and others raised in the SEA submission, are adequately addressed in the Report, or even if it provides the basis for an informed discussion, I would be both surprised and delighted. Not long now before we find out.

    P.S. Am I wrong in thinking that “all kinds of school” should include grammar schools, free schools/’parent-led academies’, private schools, faith schools, maintained schools, academies, academy chains.