New Labour's Bonapartist tendency

25th February 2000 at 00:00
Just as the French and other Europeans scrap the centralised, 'Napoleonic'

education system, England is embracing it. Margaret Maden looks at what we can learn from the way they have devolved power

AS CONTROL over state education moves inexorably to the centre in England, elsewhere in Europe (including Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) it is being devolved to the regions. Why do such differences exist? Do they matter? And can we learn from our continental neighbours?

Unlike England, most of our fellow European nations have a history of centralised state education systems. But now, with a sense of urgency, they aspire to more decentralised governance, placing a high value on locally responsive decision-making. They also acknowledge the legitimacy of claims by language and cultural groups in, for example, Spain, Sweden and Belgium, just as the UK does in Scotland and Wales.

Economics also influences policy. Research and experience show the importance of regional governments in attracting inward investment, as they compete in what the French economist, Marcou, describes as a "quasi market of places". Gaining an advantage in this market depends heavily on the quality of education and training and the ability of councils to respond to local needs.

Thus we see the powerful Ile-de-France regional council establishing a further seven universities - each with defined specialist areas, linked to the area's needs. And in Limousin, an impoverished rural area, there has been heavy investment in upper secondary schooling and the region's own, vocational 'Bac'.

In Sweden, local councils have backed the rise of Finnish-speaking schools and in Germany, demand from parents and employers has encouraged Baden-Wurttemberg to expand significantly its abitur (the German equivalent of the 'Bac') provision. Spain has seen the development of distinctively Catalan schooling and curriculum and in Italy, the unacceptable gap between the highest and lowest performing schools will be addressed, partly at least, through re-structured provincial councils.

Thus continental education policies increasingly reflect local cultures, religions, languages and economies. This freedom at local level is helped by devolved tax-raising powers.

A taxation burden dispersed across national, regional and local authorities is seen to be more acceptable to the public as well as more efficient, perhaps with good reason: recent Dutch research has shown that decentralised public spending is more cost-effective when compared with centrally allocated, ear-marked, grants. Is there a lesson here for the (ever-expanding and centralised) Standards Fund?

A particularly refreshing feature of the continent is the way the State's role is being re-defined. In France, the Nordic countries or Germany, there is no sterile 'either-or' debate between a strong centralising state or a decntralised structure that can "let a thousand flowers bloom".

Instead, each layer of democracy, has its powers and duties based on 'fitness for purpose' - in other words, powers are given to the body that will exercise them most effectively. This is accompanied by the belief that the checks, and balances of such a uti-layered system contribute to the quality and vitality of public services. Importantly, it is not automatically assumed that local authorities are always the best service-providers.

The job of central government in such a system is to define high-level purposes and objectives and comprehensively monitor the system's overall performance, in partnership with regional authorities. The French, for example say the State has "a duty to see that the fundamental values of the Republic are upheld and that the quality of education be monitored".

There is inevitable conflict and debate over priorities btween the State and the regions, for such is the nature of the democratic process. There can also be differences of policy between centre and region, be it over increased numbers of Roman Catholic schools in Brittany or student fees in Scotland. But these are finally resolved through consent. Pluralism is the name of the game.

It is clear that a new dynamic is being unleashed through these new authorities: new political communities emerge and new deals are being struck. As a result, French education ministry officials talk of being in the grip of an "existential crisis" - what should they do in this new environment?

In such a context, England is increasingly viewed as an anomaly. In the middle of the 19th century, de Tocqueville wrote about the "peculiarities of the English" and many of these persist to this day.

An early abhorrence of a state school (or university) system and an associated tradition of autonomous voluntary and private schools has helped to define "Englishness". Today, commentators such as Charles Leadbeater tell us that the future of education (as well as welfare and health) may be to revive "in modern form this voluntary local tradition of mutual welfare".

But nowhere else in Europe, have state-funded schools had to exist in such a quasi-marketplace, with their autonomy and reputations modelled on exclusive private schools, from Arnold's Rugby onwards. This has distanced them from the political structure. In contrast, school principals in France, Sweden, Spain and elsewhere are formally deemed to be "representatives of the State" and are proud to be so, without the Orwellian overtones so inevitable in English culture.

Now New Labour is determined to assert control over schools to improve standards. But it aims to do this from the centre, seemingly taking the view that it will not be helped - and will quite possibly be hindered - by local or regional democracy.

Napoleon felt the same, but his modern successors in the Jospin government now acknowledge the "technocratic delusion" that a highly centralised State, controlled by an elite, is the most effective way to govern.

Instead they have realised that fostering innovation depends on distributing power, thus unleashing the talents of elected representatives, professionals and others in those new political communities.

Shifting Gear: Changing patterns of educational governance in Europe - A Research Monograph commissioned by the Association of Education Committees (AEC) Trust, by Professor Margaret Maden, Keele University. Published by Trentham Books, price pound;5.95

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