The Blunkett Review – what do we know so far?Posted: February 7, 2014
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.