A former adviser to Michael Gove has suggested the reforms to the education system he began in 2010 took centralisation "too far", and that this can be seen in the Department for Education's response to the pandemic.
Sam Freedman, who worked under Michael Gove as a senior DfE policy adviser, said the centralisation of education, which had been "supercharged" during his time with the department, meant that the DfE was too "all-encompassing".
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"It [centralisation] stems from a set of reforms that were supercharged when I was in the department working with Michael Gove around academisation and the further centralisation of education into the DfE," Mr Freedman said.
He said that this had been a trend for the past 40 years but had been stepped up from 2010 during Mr Gove's reforms to the education system. While he said he was "very proud" of elements of the reforms and that he did not wish to turn the clock back, Mr Freedman added that centralisation had been taken too far, as could be seen in the DfE's response to the pandemic where it tried to "micromanage" schools.
"I do think one of the effects of [the reforms] has been that we’ve taken centralisation too far, the department is too all-encompassing in what it’s trying to do, and we’ve lost the sense of context from the education system," he said.
"And I think we’ve seen that displayed over the last year in the context of the response to the Covid crisis, in the way that the department has tried to micromanage exactly which schools are open where at various points, and produce their absurd map of London where some areas were going to be open coming into this new year and some were going to be closed even though they were right next to each other, and Greenwich asking to close its schools and not being allowed to – I think we’ve seen it displayed there but I think we’ve seen it displayed throughout the last decade," he added.
Mr Freedman said "there's this sense you can fix everything from the centre now", referring to the policy for Opportunity Areas, where civil servants were "fielded in" from Whitehall to other parts of the country.
And he said that while the 2010 White Paper set out a role for local authorities as schools moved to academisation or became part of multi-academy trusts, "that just hasn’t happened".
"That didn’t happen at any point, partly because Michael Gove was very opposed to creating a clearer role for them, but it also hasn’t happened since under any of the subsequent secretary of states, and that has meant a substantial amount of lost context and…we’re now talking about Covid catch-up and the immediate assumption is that has to be done centrally under central schemes which lack local context and local input."
Mr Freedman said he supported the idea that schools would move to become part of a multi-academy trust system to have "finished that reform over time" but cautioned that local authorities needed to play a part against "nefarious" actors in the sector who might adopt exclusionary admissions processes against vulnerable children.
"We have to give local authorities a very clear role in maintaining standards for their area and supporting the rights of young people in their area," he said.
"There’s no reason for academies to be looking after their own admissions, there should be a role on exclusions for local authorities, making sure that the incentives that a more nefarious minority might have aren’t used for negative effects, they should be there to protect vulnerable children from that and have the power to do that," he added.
During the discussion, Mr Freedman also said that "the department simply isn't capable of doing what it's being asked to do at the moment, and when you have a less robust secretary of state that's an even more visible problem."
Mr Freedman made the remarks while speaking at a Foundation for Education Development conference today.
The Department for Education has been contacted for comment.