Is Devo-Manc radical enough? And why are schools left out?

Last weekend, SEA had the opportunity to hear Sir Richard Leese, Leader of Manchester City Council, talk about the implications of what is becoming known as “Devo-Manc”. Devolution is currently flavour of the month in England. Pressure to move on this is coming broadly from two directions. Firstly there is the need to find an answer to “the English Question” which is essentially about the implications for England of further devolution to Scotland and possibly Wales and Northern Ireland. Secondly there is the recognition that we need to build economic strength in the regions and that city regions are recognised internationally as foci for economic growth.

There is much to welcome in this approach. Many people have long felt that we have a country which is centralised to an almost unique degree and that this is not a recipe for good governance. In the school sector we know this only too well as Whitehall plonks free schools down wherever it sees fit regardless of local views or circumstances.

But this initiative is still a classic piece of British ad hoccery. Devolution at present takes the form of an agreement between combined authorities (ie groups of councils) and the Treasury. Combined authorities are springing up where councils choose to establish them but there is no plan or map to show what the final picture will look like. And where individual councils object they can scupper the whole process. The result is very likely to be yet another patchwork job with some areas exercising devolved powers and some not.

This is because it’s being seen as a technocratic initiative rather than as a constitutional one. Combined authorities have to agree what they will do with the Treasury. They are likely to have different powers and different governance models. They have to prove they are in some way fit – in London’s eyes – to be allowed to operate. We have yet to cross the Rubicon to reach the point where we identify a national framework for devolving powers from London that applies in a consistent way throughout the country and which is based on a coherent set of boundaries – if necessary requiring awkward local councils to join in.

It’s been interesting to listen to the anxiety of some who find the idea that different parts of the country might do things differently a profoundly scary one. People with power (or those hoping to soon have power) always find it difficult to give it away. We’ve even had scare stories about the end of a national health service – no longer will Bevan’s famous dropped bed pan echo round the corridors of the Department of Health 200 miles away.

To see why this does not need to be an issue, we can look at education and how devolution might work. It is in fact entirely missing from all the discussions so far – it seems that the DfE’s model of a central department dealing directly with thousands of schools is still what we’re stuck with. But it need not be so and working out what central government should do and what should be local is not too hard:

– Central government should set the overall policy and regulatory framework – on the curriculum, exams, admissions policy, SEN entitlement, teacher supply and qualifications etc. It should also determine the overall financial settlement and should have an ultimate responsibility for quality.

– Other issues should be determined locally – providing the right number and kind of school places, allocating money to individual schools, monitoring quality and compliance, brokering collaboration and intervening when necessary. Issues relating too individual young people such as the admissions process, SEN assessment, exclusions etc should also be managed locally along with making sure that schools work collaboratively with one another and with all the other agencies with responsibility for children’s well-being.

This kind of distinction between national strategic framework and entitlement and local planning and delivery can work equally well in other service areas. There should be no need to fear any dilution of national standards but there would be the space to join up services and to respond to local circumstances.

Which leaves us with the question – why is there no place for schools in Devo-Manc? You can see why this would be so for the Tories – they want schools to be rootless and individualistic without any local accountability. For Labour though there could be an easy answer. Put the Director of School Standards within the combined authority framework answerable to a board made up of elected members and other stakeholders and ultimately to the elected Mayor or Leader. It’s what has been done with the Police Commissioner. It’s how Greater Manchester Health and Care will be run. Why not schools?