Demanding parents and staff with drive are keys to success
Reading the Government's public service policy review Building on Progress, released this week, I faced three questions. As one of its architects in my time at Number 10, would it be as bold as we had envisaged? As a policy analyst, would this be a serious and coherent piece of work? As a public service user, particularly a parent, would there be tangible outcomes?
To each of these questions there is a mixed answer. The review is a clear statement of new Labour's reform philosophy. There is repeated emphasis on choice for citizens, competition among providers and paving the way for a more responsive and personalised service. The review envisages making it easier for new providers to set up small schools or take over failing ones.
There is an expectation that parents be given more detail on pupil progress and personalised targets, and for parents to get more involved.
But, as the review makes few concrete commitments, how much of it will be carried forward when Tony Blair has gone? The review may contain the word "could" more often than "should" or "will" but the fact that Gordon Brown strongly endorsed the review at its launch and the presence of Treasury fingerprints on some of the recommendations suggest the overall direction will be maintained under the new Prime Minister.
As a policy analysis, the review has some weaknesses and unexpected qualities. On the down side there is the shoe-horning of favoured ideas into places they don't really fit: giving students credits for community volunteering may be a good idea, but is it really an example of citizens shaping services? The obligatory section on rights and responsibilities reads as if it were written at the printers. On the up side, the document shows insight into some of the problems with past policy, such as the failure of the reform process to win over public service professionals.
Equity is not only emphasised but reflected in new ideas. The proposal that school funding should reward value-adding and so encourage schools to attract pupils with the greatest scope for improvement could have a major impact.
As a parent, there was little in the document I could disagree with. Better pupil data offers more personalisation, with teachers, parents and pupils sharing responsibility for children reaching agreed targets. Ideas for parent engagement, especially through technology such as websites and mobile phones, are the kind of thing I have pressed for as a school governor. As a parent of a school benefiting hugely from a change of leadership and being overseen by a head working across two schools, I endorse measures to make it easier to intervene in failing schools and enable good leaders to manage more than one school.
The big imponderable lies in the gap between the framework and day-to-day practice. The tentative tone of the review reflects Mr Blair's departure and the unpredictability of the new reform strategy. In seeking to create a continuously improving system, the Government recognises that the right central framework is only one ingredient in a system that also needs innovative providers, ambitious public professionals and demanding customers. In many areas, these ingredients are still missing. Any parents'
evening will reveal huge variations in the quality of feedback and commitment to parents' engagement - and that's in the same school.
Overall progress in attainment is impressive, but no one would argue that new Labour had got everything right in schools. But the Government is right that as long as equity can be advanced, diversity of provision, greater local autonomy and a stronger role for parents are key to ensuring that improvement is built into the system. These are principles we are applying to work at the RSA, including our planned academy in Tipton, West Midlands.
The review is not a blueprint for a new schools system - but as a model of change which local authorities, governors and new school providers can apply to their own circumstances, it is not a bad starting point.