Whispers from Westminster

5th February 2016 at 00:00
Jonathan Simons, head of education at thinktank Policy Exchange, writes weekly about policy and education

Labas from Vilnius. I’m in Lithuania for a few days, courtesy of the British Council, to help advise policymakers on reforms in England – specifically converter academies and free schools.

It’s a fascinating place. Politically, it’s a smorgasbord of small parties ranging from nationalists to ex-Soviet communists. The main party I’ve been talking to is the Liberals. They’re tiny but influential.

Educationally, the country recognises the imperative to drive forward improvements – as a small EU nation, it loses 5-10 per cent of its young workforce to emigration annually (including to the UK), which has huge consequences for the economy. They are fascinated by English reforms; I gave a presentation to a packed audience in the parliament.

Like England, there’s a lot else that they should think about. Schools are funded partly per pupil (which can only be used for teachers and textbooks) and partly via a block grant from the municipality, which only pays for energy, cleaning costs, admin staff and capital spend. This has a number of perverse consequences, some of which have echoes of the fallout from PFI in England. I visited a school in a huge building – an ex-Soviet, brutalist construction and draughty as hell, but with the heating running 24/7. The bills must be enormous, but the principal doesn’t have any incentive to make her building more efficient, because the city council pays for it.

And curriculum-wise, they’re still wedded to a 1970s-style progressive mindset. One teacher cheerfully told me how they’d abandoned a maths lesson to resolve a classroom argument, because it’s morals not maths that are really needed. Senior officials from the education ministry quizzed me about what the British government had taken from Summerhill School. (Once I said “Nothing, it’s crazy” a few times, the conversation lapsed.)

Fortunately, the Liberals are on top of funding reform, along with a firm commitment to have 100 converter academies in their first term should they form part of the government.

The other thing that drives the country is a fear of Russia (and a fervent hope that the UK doesn’t exit the EU). My guide noted that my hotel was right next door to the Ministry of Defence. I joked that I should at least be safe. “Oh no,” he said, frowning. “If the Russians bomb, this is a high-value target. You’d be the first thing hit.” So I’m watching the skies as I write this – not a lot education policy could do about that.

Jonathan Simons is a former head of education in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit under Gordon Brown and David Cameron

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