3rd July 2009 at 01:00

This week's white paper has been trailed by the Government as being about radical reform and decentralisation, freeing schools from bureaucracy and top-down diktats. But a closer reading reveals significant tensions in a document designed to be decentralist, but simultaneously advance the top-down Children's Plan.

Many of the Government's new "entitlements" are focused on telling schools how they should do things rather than what they should be aiming for. Why should schools have to follow a specific model of pastoral support - personal tutors - rather than designing their own, which might be equally effective? The idea that the Government can legislate to create a tutor that "knows each child well" is deeply problematic and harks back to a "government knows best" philosophy.

In contrast, greater decentralisation of school budgets is to be welcomed. School heads are often better placed to assess the needs of local children and young people than local government officials are.

However, as they get greater power over their budgets, there needs to be more information they can access about what kinds of programmes are most effective, and which charities and private sector companies have a good track record of working with schools.

The white paper designates the role of quality assessor to local authorities. But there are doubts over whether they can fulfil this role given they themselves have not been particularly effective at evidence-based commissioning. At Demos we have argued there is a role for sector-led quality checking of programmes designed to work in conjunction with schools to improve outcomes.

It will also be important to watch whether the total size of the pot decreases as it moves from the national strategies to the direct control of schools in this tight fiscal climate.

The abolition of the national strategies will be seen as a step towards giving teachers more professional freedom. If this is to be a genuinely empowering measure, it needs to be accompanied by extra support for a profession used to being told what effective classroom practice looks like. The announcement about entitlements to continuing professional development is positive - less prescription about curriculum and classroom practice requires more training in curriculum development.

However, the new 'licence to teach' that accompanies it could prove an expensive and bureaucratic exercise unnecessary for the majority of teachers. Efforts in this area would be better focused on improving performance management systems and making it easier for heads to sack consistently poor performers who fail to improve.

The white paper is more decentralist than any national government education policy for a long time, and is a step in the right direction. But it confirms that Westminster politicians are still reluctant to let go properly.

Sonia Sodha is head of the capabilities programme at think tank Demos:

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