Targets are all very well, but schools must be allowed to develop creatively and make the best use of their own communities, argues Matthew Taylor
ALTHOUGH it received little media attention, the White Paper, Public Services for the Future, is critically important. It represents a key plank of the Government's agenda for modernising public services, with education at the top of the list.
The paper outlines new public service agreements between the Treasury and each government department. Henceforth, departments will have to show that clear performance targets are being met to demonstrate just what is being achieved with taxpayers' money. Money is for modernisation, in the New Labour mantra.
These targets vary from the bland to the highly prescriptive. Those for the Department for Education and Employment are familiar: a combination of the national learning targets, the key stage 2 literacy and numeracy targets, the manifesto pledge to cut infant class sizes and so on. Others cover cross-departmental concerns, such as action to tackle illegal drugs.
In principle, these targets are a good thing. It is an important part of the modernisation of our public services that we can see exactly what the Government is trying to achieve and how well it is doing it, year on year. It's a performance regime which should help restore some of the faith that the public has lost in the political process.
But there are problems. First, the targets can be the wrong ones. For example, a target for achievement of five A-C grades at GCSE leads to a concentration of effort on those on the borderline. Lower attainers get less attention, and sometimes exclusion if they are disruptive. So new targets are added for reducing the numbers leaving schools without qualifications and cutting exclusions. But the reality of league tables means that the effort is always corrective. The first target was wrong.
Second, the temptation is for ministers to take ever greater control of what happens in schools and local education authorities to ensure the targets on which so much political capital has been staked can be met. In education, this process has resulted in the detailed prescription of what happens in the classroom.
Measures to raise standards are vital and the Government is right to pursue them. But we have to look longer term - at what nourishes and sustains our public services. The key point is whether the space for entrepreneurship, creativity, and risk-taking on which the ideas and practices of the future depend is squeezed out.
This can be put another way. The management theorist Ralph Lacey has made a useful distinction between "ordinary" and "extraordinary" management. The former consists of routine management processes: setting a policy framework and targets, establishing quality assurance processes, directing resources, and so on. Extraordinary management is the creative bit: the pushing back of boundaries, the generation of enthusiasm and new ideas, team development, issues which go to the core ethos of the organisation.
Education policy needs to nurture extraordinary management. Of course, policy over the past decade has been based on the premise that schools should run their own affairs. The new role for local education authorities does not challenge that presumption; rather, it is intended to support it. But we need to think further about the space given to schools, and particularly headteachers, for taking new directions and generating new ideas. This is not always a matter of giving them new responsibilities. The introduction of performance-related pay, for example, while critical for the success of much policy, will also place new burdens on schools. It's a zero sum game.
Other policies, particularly the development of education action zones, point in the direction of freedom for innovation. The zones give flexibility for doing things differently. They encourage the education service to go beyond what it knows or has been told to do. The zones are also important because they are helping to build new social capital around schools. Civic support for schools helps to raise standards and to develop stronger civic virtue in the community at large.
There is growing interest on the centre-left in the renewal of civic virtues and the development of a "civic" liberalism for the next century. Intelligent conservatives are also now interested, having abandoned a civic society to the parched winds of the free market for so many years.
Civic identity and virtue provide a bridge between individuals, their rights, and the wider community. But civic participation can only evolve where people have real involvement and control over what happens in their communities. They have to be able to make a difference to the life of the school. Schools, their leadership teams and their governors, need space for thinking holistically about their schools and incentives for effective partnership with local communities. In turn, these communities must be empowered to reach into schools in new ways. Tony Blair has spoken of the concept of "freedom for modernisation". Where public service can demonstrate success, he said, they will get more freedom. That's already happening in further education with the development of accredited colleges and the Office for Standards in Education offers lighter-touch inspections to successful schools.
These policies need to be built upon. If they can demonstrate success, schools should be freed from regulation and given more control over their core ethos and their relationship with the local community. That help will secure future success and enable schools to play a leading role in the development of an enriched civic culture.
Matthew Taylor is director of the Institute of Public Policy Research, the leading centre-left think-tank