Tuesday, 30 August 2011

What would Dorothy do about Education?


I absolutely love Yes Minister and I adore Yes Prime Minister. Like many people before me from Mrs T on, I chuckle at how the cynical officers manipulate the clueless politicians, no doubt before going to County Hall to be told how my ideas aren't practical by the officers!

But the character who always impresses is the person who the Chief Civil Servant in the series (Sir Humphrey Appleby) refers to as “the enemy” or “that Wainwright woman” (not to forget “dear lady” when they are in the same room!). Dorothy Wainwright, the prime ministers political advisor.

Dorothy is always portrayed as having really sensible but radical ideas that are always thwarted by the self serving civil service. I've just watched the episode “the National Education Service” in which Dorothy proposes abolishing the department for Education and just paying schools per pupil directly from the treasury (administered by local authorities) with only a central inspectorate. All schools would have to take as many children as want to go to a school and if they get too popular they can take over other schools buildings.

Although Sir Humphrey is prepared to settle for no change, he would prefer to centralise and to put all power to the national government abolishing LEAs and, if possible removing parental choice. After all “parents are not qualified to decide what is best for their childrens education”. He feels that this will keep the teachers unions happy, and that is what the comprehensive system is designed for.

I always think a lot of the issues in the Yes Minister series haven't dated much. Today we have a constant direction of all governments from Major onwards to favour Academies free of central control. Now we have “free schools” which are the next step.

So is this Sir Humpreys vision or Dorothy Wainwrights? The question almost no one asks is “what would Dorothy Wainwright do?”

Well in some ways she would approve. Academies (lets not look at Free Schools – they are a tiny number and we have no idea how they will work) are supposedly free of control. But of course they (unsurprisingly) look a lot more like Sir Humphreys vision. Central Government has removed them from the overview of local people through their local authorities. They are still controlled from the centre and because there is usually only one per area in the north, they tend to put the power of choice firmly into the schools hands not the pupils. Selection through the back door, through exclusions and expensive school uniforms means they are often the preserve of the pushy parent.

So I think the current arrangement is a centralising one. It is ever thus from Whitehall. The funny thing is how successive secretaries of state fall for it.

I quite like Dorothys idea. Parents should be able to select their school, regardless of its popularity. That may cause planning difficulties for schools but we have coped with worse. Schools could do with being freed from the tyranny of the national curriculum and just being judged on meeting a minimum standard. They would then become like small businesses. Why shouldn't children from County Durham go to schools in Gateshead or Northumberland if they live nearby (something the Durham LEA is keen to cut off by removing school transport subsidies)? Who are the better judges of education, the experts or the parents?

There would have to be some regulation in the real world. In more rural areas, there is little choice and if a school fails in such areas something would need to be done. But I'm not sure that Wainwright woman isn't on to something. If nothing else it would save a lot of money in DfE bureaucrats and their colleagues in LEAs. Would it lead to much worse educational standards?