Dale Bassett

Time for a history lesson

Time for a history lesson
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"Now, with the best teaching force and the best school leadership ever, we are poised to become world class if we have the courage and vision to reform and invest further and put the parent and pupil at the centre of the system. Our reforms must build on the freedoms that schools have increasingly received, but extend them radically. We must put parents in the driving seat for change in all-ability schools that retain the comprehensive principle of non-selection, but operate very differently from the traditional comprehensive. And to underpin this change, the local authority must move from being a provider of education to being its local commissioner and the champion of parent choice."

This admirable and aspirational Prime Ministerial foreword to the schools white paper succinctly sets out exactly what needs to happen to effect real, substantial and permanent change in the education system: power given to parents; autonomy for schools to innovate; and local authorities' role in running schools removed. The words, however, are Tony Blair's, and the foreword is taken from the previous government's landmark schools white paper, published almost exactly five years ago. The new government's schools white paper, published yesterday, argues that the same reforms are still necessary. This very fact yields a warning for Michael Gove, the Education Secretary. Aspiration is not enough. If the government stranglehold on the education system is not broken, the same foreword could yet appear in the schools white paper of 2015.

In effect the current government has made the same calculation as its reforming predecessors, both Labour (Tony Blair and Andrew Adonis) and Conservative (Margaret Thatcher and Kenneth Baker). It has decided to leave the structures of the national system in place, i.e. a national curriculum, national inspectorate, national pay bargaining, an important role for local authorities and all surmounted by an activist central department of state. It has sought to introduce greater flexibility within this national structure, as others have before. For this government's academies, read the previous governments' academies and grant-maintained schools. For free schools, read City Technology Colleges. The history has been repeated. But what should worry ministers is that the earlier waves of reform quickly petered out, to be replaced by an even stronger centralisation. Even yesterday's White Paper contains centralising measures that, if introduced by Gordon Brown, would have been characterised as retreats from reform. Local authorities are to have new powers of strategic oversight over academies. Teacher recruitment and training is to be centralised within the Department for Education. The Government will directly take over even more low-performing schools.

If Mr Gove wants his legacy to be a permanent, transformational change of the education system, he cannot escape the need to tackle the essential features of the centralised system. That includes the regulatory framework such as the national curriculum. But it also includes the idea government will pay for parental choice whatever school is chosen. It is not consistent to ban state funding of private places while allowing it in the NHS, prisons, social care and local government services. But more importantly it confirms that a free choice of education will always be reserved for those few who can pay. The Conservative Party was willing to entertain "vouchers" under Iain Duncan Smith's leadership. It has backed off since then.

Yesterday's white paper aptly quotes Tony Blair's memoirs to make this very point. "[An Academy] belongs not to some remote bureaucracy, not to the rulers of government, local or national, but to itself, for itself. The school is in charge of its own destiny. This gives it pride and purpose. And most of all, freed from the extraordinarily debilitating and often, in the worst sense, political correct interference from state or municipality, Academies have just one thing in mind, something shaped not by political prejudice but by common sense: what will make the school excellent." David Cameron may share Tony Blair's vision but he will need a different programme if he is to deliver it.

Dale Bassett is Research Director at the independent think tank Reform and co-author of the report Every teacher matters