Whispers from Westminster

13th May 2016 at 00:00
This U-turn is a case of cock-up, not conspiracy

The blunders of our Government is a fascinating book, charting the cross-party history of badly designed and implemented policies. The authors identify two things in common: an unrealistic expectation of what can be delivered, and a lack of knowledge of the way in which real people (especially those outside of London) think and act.

So the decision by the DfE not to proceed with academising all schools by 2022 is perhaps a sensible policy decision. A long list of concerns now remain just theoretical, rather than practical. Much better to proceed on a more limited basis – continuing to allow high-performing schools to convert, while taking action on low-performing schools, including new powers on low-performing LAs and in areas that have only a few non-academies in them.

Being honest, I don’t like this policy as much as I did the previous one, and I’m not going to pretend that I’m pleased – although I agree it is sensible in terms of managing risks. My disappointment will come as no surprise to anyone, including those at the DfE who have followed what I’ve been saying as a vocal advocate for the original policy.

The reason I didn’t propose something like this when I wrote about universal academisation in 2013 was that I worry about the trend of academisation being seen as a punishment, rather than a positive choice.

I also worry about a tipping point being reached that jeopardises large numbers of maintained primaries; though new measures allowing for wholesale conversion in these instances addresses that to some extent (although again, as something done to schools rather than a change of their own choosing). And I continue to worry about the ongoing costs of the dual system, and the complexity in managing this.

But I do want to make two things clear. The first is that this is a change – a U-turn. There are some who see this as a Machiavellian trick to achieve the same ends by more subtle means. But if that’s true, given that all the current proposals (including funding cuts to LAs) were in the White Paper or announced already, why didn’t the government just announce those? Why go through the charade of announcing a more controversial way to get to the same goal and have a plan to always drop it? It’s not like this recent switch has garnered positive headlines.

The second thing is why this change has been made. One thing that is illustrative about blunders is how they often happened as a result of poor Parliamentary scrutiny. This hasn’t happened here – the shadow education secretary Lucy Powell has been forensic in dissecting the proposals and using opportunities to probe the weaknesses in it. But make no mistake – this was not a change forced by the opposition. Opposition from the opposition is priced in – the clue is in the name.

Similarly, I can’t imagine NiMo and her team were counting on support from the NUT teaching union. What happened is that sufficient numbers of Tory MPs didn’t like the idea of doing away with council-maintained schools. That, and that alone, accounts for the shift in approach.

So there we are. Mea culpa. I’m a metropolitan (neo)liberal, and I underestimated the affection of many schools and MPs for local government structures. Blunder averted, perhaps. But anyone looking for lessons from this to seek further changes in education policy, where the traditional left-right division still exists, may well be disappointed.

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