One of the perils of studying history is that one is always looking for parallels to current events, some of which turn out to be quite misleading. Even so – for this sometime student of the English Civil War – there do seem to be some ready comparisons between England’s regional schools commissioners and Oliver Cromwell’s major-generals.
First a bit of background. There are eight RSCs. They currently report to the education secretary through the schools commissioner Frank Green, and from next month his successor Sir David Carter. They work with heads and others to promote and monitor academies and free schools, the government’s (or at the very least the prime minister’s) intention being that eventually all schools and most sixth-form colleges will come under these categories. Indeed, the Education and Adoption Bill will give RSCs the power to force schools to become academies.
They are supported by regional boards of academy heads. Their salaries are between £100,000 and £140,000; their office costs are up to £260,000. While their specific functions are mostly in relation to academies and free schools, their role is expanding. They are, for example, involved in the area reviews of post-16 provision, even though school sixth forms are outside the reviews’ terms of reference. As more and more schools convert to academy status, and the number of free schools grows, the RSCs will, in effect, become regional controllers of local educational provision on behalf of the education secretary.
Imprisonment and exile
During the Protectorate in the mid-17th century, there were 10 major-generals for Wales and England; Scotland and Ireland were covered by similar arrangements. They were appointed in 1655 and reported directly to the Lord Protector, Cromwell himself. They were supported by county committees and militias. Their job was to ensure military security – there had been an unsuccessful Cavalier revolt in 1655 – by suppressing unlawful assemblies, disarming Royalist “malignants” and apprehending highwaymen, thieves and robbers. They were also intended to promote moral reform by, for example, closing unruly alehouses. Although initially expected to be a permanent feature of the Protectorate government, the system was abandoned in the Parliament of 1656-57. None of the initially appointed major-generals who lived through the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 ever held public office again and a number were imprisoned or went into exile.
Although it may seem far-fetched, there are some parallels between major-generals and RSCs. Both are creatures of an authoritarian central government. Both are undemocratic, being appointed by a government rather than being elected (in the case of the RSCs, the regional boards are drawn from the – similarly undemocratic – local academy heads). Both reflect the central government’s mistrust of local interests (the fact that the major-generals were not drawn from the ranks of the local gentry but from “true believers” in the regime was one of the main causes of their unpopularity and subsequent downfall). Yet both rely on local knowledge and advice to do their jobs (including, in the case of the RSCs, the local authorities that they are replacing). Both were established in response to what the government of the day saw as a pressing national need: suppressing the Royalists and completing the Puritan Revolution in the 17th century, completing the academisation of the state school sector in the 21st century.
But behind these only mildly suggestive comparisons, there is a serious issue, one that the combination of the growing importance of the RSCs and increased academisation is bringing to the fore: what should be the balance between the central government, local communities, and individual schools in the coordination of the provision of education?
As a recent brief for the Department for Education by a distinguished Canadian educationalist, Dr Paul Cappon, confirms, England is unusual among advanced Western countries in combining a heavily centralised system for educational policy with a highly decentralised system for service delivery.
On the one hand, policy, curriculum and funding are more powerfully determined by the government than in most other places. This means that ministers are often involved in micromanaging issues that would be handled locally or regionally elsewhere. Since the evidence base for policymaking is either weak, non-existent or ignored, policy is often made incrementally. This can mean sudden, destabilising and often incomprehensible changes of direction, as has been seen repeatedly in qualifications reform, for example.
On the other hand, with academisation, delivery has become even more decentralised, with the individual school seen as the main locus of accountability and change (so that, for example, each school has a specialist data manager, which is unusual elsewhere). While in theory, such decentralisation allows a thousand flowers to bloom, in practice, it is harder to scale up successful local initiatives or share good practice more widely (hence ministers’ attraction to multi-academy trusts). It also means that the benefits of competition are not accompanied by the benefits of collaboration (the London Challenge is a notable exception that proves the rule).
As Sir Peter Newsam and others have pointed out, one of the key points about academisation is that, in so far as they are accountable to anyone, academies and chains are accountable to the education secretary: they are, in essence, direct-grant schools by another name. It is the growth of such schools that has forced on ministers the realisation that the DfE cannot completely control the system from the centre, hence the creation of the RSCs and the expansion of their role. Let us all hope that they do not suffer the same fate as Cromwell’s major-generals.
Roger Brown is emeritus professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University and chair of Barton Peveril Sixth Form College in Eastleigh, Hampshire