The Blunkett review and education’s democratic deficit


The Blunkett review is to be welcomed as it would help recreate an education system. But it does not fully address English education’s democratic deficit.

“Standards not structures” never made much sense as a mantra. Politicians are right to signal that high standards for all are their main policy aim but the idea that the way education is organised has no bearing on standards is simply crazy. One just needs to look at England where we now have a chaotic non-system of competing providers and distorted markets which can only be described as “confusion not coherence”. We have a highly interventionist government which refuses to intervene in the one effective way it should; to develop an effective national education system.

Whoever wins next year’s general election will inherit the fractured landscape of English education. The challenge will be how to start healing the fractures and create a functional system which is actually capable of achieving high standards for all.

Enter David Blunkett, with his Review of education structures, functions and the raising of standards for all published a few weeks ago and commissioned by the Labour Party to inform their manifesto for 2015. The document is long and contains many detailed recommendations which have already attracted much comment (see below for a list). It was driven by two overriding objectives:

To raise standards and offer equal opportunity for all children.
To bring about coherence, consistency and collaboration to the education service.

These are vital aims and the 40 recommendations are mostly very welcome practical steps towards the creation of a system; something which is taken for granted in most countries but is quite impossible under the current English free-for-all with its plethora of competing schools, chains, sponsors and constant government-inspired market interventions.

In his introduction David Blunkett also provides a much better case for the importance of education than does the current draft Labour manifesto (see my comments on this here). Instead of the drear language of economic instrumentalism and guff about winning the global “race to the top” we are told that:

“A grasp of who we are, where we are and where we come from is essential to our sense of identity.”

“We have to provide the opportunity to build those thinking and critical skills which allow the analytical faculties to develop – to be able to challenge as well as to make sense of the world around us.”

The introduction ends with a flourish:

“Education is the great liberator; it can unlock what William Blake called those mind-forged manacles”.

Bernard Crick’s former student shows his commitment to education for citizenship and his belief in the liberating power of education and this gives real heart to the document. Labour would do well to adopt these sentiments as well as agreeing the recommendations.

At the centre of the Review is the proposal to create independent Directors of School Standards (DSS) who would be charged with driving up standards and would intervene or facilitate intervention where necessary, for example via Community Trusts or Education Incubation Zones. They would encourage schools to share good practice and be empowered to broker collaboration. They would be appointed by groups of local authorities from shortlists approved by the Secretary of State and relate to a forum and stakeholder panel. They would report annually to various elected representatives in ways which would encourage questioning and debate.

This is an improvement on what we have now. The Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs) currently being introduced will only oversee part of the school system, will be biased in favour of particular solutions and will have no real accountability to local people or their elected representatives.

However desirable though, the introduction of Directors of School Standards will not address the democratic deficit at the heart of English education. To be effective, such a key player as a DSS, with their vital responsibility for system-building, system improvement and system-change within their area, should have real local legitimacy. This is much diluted if it is exercised via representatives from a group of local councils. If not directly elected themselves, I would suggest that the DSS should be appointed by, and accountable to, a directly elected education authority. There is a good case for these strategic authorities to be regional or city-wide and to take on responsibility for 16-18 education as well. In London, for example, that authority could be the Greater London Authority.

Some people argue that we shouldn’t fetishize local democracy, that elections do not guarantee improvement and that one election every 4 years cannot address today’s real problems. Clearly, electoral politics does not solve everything but giving up on the democratic oversight of local public services denies us all our voice and leads to rule by technocrats and experts or, worse, the anarchy of the market.

Every citizen in England has a stake in education and has a right to know, for their area:

Who decides education policy and priorities?
Who defines and sets standards and tackles underperformance?
Who ensures the system is working fairly for everyone?
How do we get to question, debate and challenge them?
How can we remove and replace them?

Education policy is too important to leave solely to the secretary of state, to experts or to the market. It should be subject to scrutiny and debate locally as well as nationally. I think we should be arguing for elected education authorities, not as the only solution but to help create a new democratic space for education to be debated. We should trust ourselves to shape this debate and to elect people on the basis of their education policies. We might be surprised by how much better we can make things and any new DSS or RSC worth their salt should be delighted to report to an elected body supported by an engaged and vibrant local education community.

3 Comments on “The Blunkett review and education’s democratic deficit”

  1. Richard Hatcher says:

    The DSS is responsible for planning school places and setting up new schools through a process of competitive bidding open to ‘All trusts (including community trusts), partnerships, chains, parent groups, diocesan authorities and social entrepreneurs’. Schools opened and run by parent groups is simply the Coalition’s free schools rebranded as ‘parent-led academies’. And ones run by ‘social entrepreneurs’ would also be no different from some Coalition free schools.

    Notably, this list doesn’t include local authorities, though an internal ‘PLP Briefing on the Blunkett Report into school standards: local oversight, challenge and support for all schools’ says explicitly ‘David recommends allowing Local Authorities to once again bid to open new community schools, scrapping Michael Gove’s policy which only allows new academies or Free Schools.’ (p3). This needs urgently clarifying.

    The Director for School Standards is responsible for school collaboration to raise standards.
    The DSS must be empowered to broker collaboration within the local area they lead. … The DSS would intervene where unsatisfactory or inadequate collaboration was evident. (p10). We know that collaborative support among schools is the best method of ‘school improvement’, and it has grown in recent years as local authority capacity has declined. But what powers will the DSS have to ensure effective collaboration among the hundreds of schools in several LAs in her or his area? No team of staff, but money saved from Gove’s lavish spending on setting up academies and free schools. This money would be apparently funnelled through LAs to groups of schools. All of whom would be held to account by the DSS.

    The question then is what powers would the DSS have to enforce this? They don’t look that different to Gove’s. For example, the DSS can hand over a school regarded by parents as inadequate to a sponsor (p38). This seems like a continuation of the policy of forced academisation, not, as the Review claims, an alternative to it.

    Where would power lie in local school systems under Labour? I agree with Eddie that the key question here is that it should lie not with the DSS but with the local authorities which employ her or him. But under Labour it looks like power over LAs and schools would remain, just devolved from the Secretary of State in London to the Directors of School Standards in the regions, but still dependent on schools and LAs to implement policy, and therefore on the ability to intervene to apply sanctions. However, there are two potentially countervailing policies in the Review.

    One is that the DSS would be an employee of the LAs who have appointed her or him. The question then is, is she or he therefore subject to the decisions of elected local government? If so, this would represent a fundamental break with the centralised policies of the Coalition and the reinvigoration of local councils’ role in education.

    The other is the Review’s proposed ‘local Education Panel. This would include representation from schools in the area, parents and relevance Local Authority representatives, who would work with the DSS on the development of a long-term strategic plan for education, ensure commissioning decisions are taken in line with that plan and agree the budget proposed by the DSS.’ (p10). This is the most progressive policy in the Review. It offers the opportunity for genuine joint participation in strategic policy-making by schools, parents and LAs, with the possibility of Local Education Panels widening their membership to include representatives of governors, school unions, and the local community

    But the crunch comes if the LA or the Education Panel decides on policies which are unacceptable to the DSS (and therefore to government), whether it is about funding in the context of a Labour government’s austerity budgets, the continuation of academy chains and free schools, the social divisiveness of the Tech Bacc, or other elements in Labour’s programme. This will be the new local battleground where campaigners should be mobilising to ensure that Education Panels and LAs maximise popular participation and pressure for progressive education policies that meet local needs.

  2. Terry Loane says:

    I certainly agree that there is a democratic deficit at the heart of English education, and that Blunkett’s proposal for appointed ‘Directors of School Standards’ will not really address this.
    But surely there is a much, much bigger issue here. Eddie quotes Blunkett as writing about education as “the great liberator” and about the importance of providing “the opportunity to build those thinking and critical skills which allow the analytical faculties to develop – to be able to challenge as well as to make sense of the world around us.”

    We have to ask ourselves if we really believe in these aspirations or if we just accept them as the usual empty rhetoric that oozes from the mouths and pens of politicians. If we do believe in education as promoting liberation, critical thinking and challenge then we need to do far more than just worry about the balance of power between national politicians, local politicians and appointed technocrats. We need to challenge assumptions about the very nature of schooling. We need to challenge the accepted vocabulary of schooling. The very phrase ‘Director of School Standards’ shows an acceptance of ‘the drear language of economic instrumentalism’ to which Eddie refers. I would say it shows an acceptance of the damaging and mindless assumptions about competitiveness that lie behind the importance attached, for example, to PISA test results. Indeed the very phrase ‘raise standards’ is dangerous in that it focuses our attention on measurement of an uncritically accepted curriculum rather than on critical analysis of what learning experiences we should be offering young people. We will never help our children to develop valuable yet unmeasurable attributes like critical thinking and the ability to challenge the world if we have schools that are focused on pandering to the demands of the ‘Director of School Standards’, OFSTED, PISA etc.

    Let us have the courage to re-imagine education for the 21st century rather than to scrabble about trying to fine-tune the minutiae of an outmoded system. We could perhaps start by critically examining our assumptions about the school year and the underuse of school buildings – as I have done at:

  3. David Pavett says:

    Eddie says that the Blunkett review is to be welcomed because it “would help recreate an education system” while regretting that “it does not fully address English education’s democratic deficit”.

    The second point is something of an understatement since the review’s recommendation for Director’s of School Standards (DSS) as independent controller of the creation, closing and evaluation of schools has no democratic legitimacy. It is a way from keeping Schools from any direct influence of Local Authorities. DSSs would be appointed by a local authority, or group thereof, but only from a Government approved short list (no argument is made for that) and would be statutorily independent.

    But the situation is worse that even that makes clear. Blunkett proposals would not heal the fractures in English education. The battering ram used by Gove to increase its already fractured state has been academisation (including free schools). This would remain. Blunkett says quite simply “academies are here to stay” and free schools would remain renamed as “parent-led academies”. The ratchet of winding down local authority involvement remains: they would not be allowed to set up new schools. Ofsted is treated completely uncritically as is its head Michael Wilshaw. Also schools can remain as their own admission authorities although it is said that the Guidelines would be strengthened.

    There is even a strong hint that Blunkett would like to outsource Council educational operations to trusts in the manner of Hackney (mentioned 14 times). The Hackney Learning Trust is a private not for profit company that negotiates is dealings with the council on the basis of a 10-contract.

    I see nothing in this that will heal the fractured state of English education. It is a bureaucratic solution that takes the essentials of the landscape not only as its starting point (it could do no else) but also as its future. The hostility in educational matters to local authorities is pretty clear when you drill down through the warm rhetoric. The would be reduced to the role of information providers to the new DSSs.

    And as for the democratic deficit we need to be clear what sort of democracy is being spoken of. Blunkett’s model is mainly that of consumerist democracy e.g. the right to complain. That may work for biscuits but not for education.

    It seems to clear to me that 5 years of education run on the Blunkett lines would leave education even more ready for privatisation than it is now. AFter 5 years of solutions like this we would be in essentially in the same rut that we are in now.

    I agree with Richard that there are some potential openings for democratic forums but these would only work if activists could persuade council’s to go beyond what is proposed in this document. And even if they succeeded that would not solve the problem of the LAs lack of ability to make changes to most aspects of the system for most schools except through the Government approved DSS.”

    I agree with Eddie when he says “I think we should be arguing for elected education authorities, not as the only solution but to help create a new democratic space for education to be debated. We should trust ourselves to shape this debate and to elect people on the basis of their education policies.”

    But he follows this by saying “…any new DSS or RSC worth their salt should be delighted to report to an elected body supported by an engaged and vibrant local education community” which is clearly not at all the same thing. It is also democracy on a wing and a prayer.

    I do not think we should be welcoming the Blunkett review and above all I think we should reject the proposal for Directors of School Standards and call for an LA framework for schools.

    Some more points here and here.