Unlike compulsory conversion to academy status, the biggest blunders of governments reach the statute book and cause difficulties for both the people affected and the politicians who promoted the legislation. One thinks of the poll tax, the child support agency, the Suez mission in 1956, the Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991, the legislation that led to the misselling of pensions and the abolition of the 10p tax rate in 2007.
Thankfully, the Budget proposal to force all schools to convert to academy status has been dropped by the government, although it was interesting that George Osborne was nowhere to be seen when the policy reversal was announced by the secretary of state, Nicky Morgan.
The logic of the proposal was articulated by Jonathan Simons in TES: with local authorities suffering a lingering death in many parts of England, it is inefficient to continue with two structures for schools – local authority and multi-academy trust (MAT) – so the restriction of the role of local authorities to three areas opens the way for a more clearly defined governance and accountability structure, based entirely on MATs and larger chains and overseen by regional schools commissioners (RSCs). Local democratic control is, according to this argument, replaced by national democratic control through the RSCs.
Even if you accept the logic of this argument, it became apparent on Budget day that the government had got the politics of this all wrong. Local authority politicians in England, a large proportion of whom are Conservative, were bound to be upset, but more significantly, so were backbench Conservative MPs, now increasingly rebellious on Europe and just about everything else. Away from Westminster and council chambers, school leaders, teachers and parents were angry too. I saw the schools minister, Nick Gibb, excoriated on Newsnight by a journalist whose children were in a very successful local authority school, with Gibb completely unable to explain convincingly why that school should be forced to become an academy.
To understand how governments of all colours in London get things so wrong, I recommend a reading of The Blunders of our Governments by Professors Anthony King and Ivor Crewe (Oneworld Publications, 2013).
'Wide open to fraud'
The book’s list of blunders contains only one example from the world of education: Individual Learning Accounts (ILAs). In a chapter entitled The great training robbery, King and Crewe set out how a principled idea – to offer skills training to the many people who were unskilled and out of work – became a gravy train for training providers. The chapter begins: “Individual Learning Accounts – born 1996, died 2001 – lived a short life and died a sudden death,” but some management courses still use ILAs as a case study in policy failure. Gordon Brown announced in his 1999 budget that the first million people to apply to set up an ILA would receive £150 from the government and subsequent discounts on courses, provided that they put in £25 themselves. The scheme, run not by the banks as originally intended, but by Capita, was wide open to fraud and unscrupulous training providers milked the government for millions.
The book contains a chapter on each of the major blunders and, in the second half, King and Crewe cite a long list of reasons why governments make such mistakes: the cultural disconnect between policy-makers and citizens, and group-think, both of which occurred over the poll tax; media-led panic, such as that which brought on the Dangerous Dogs Act; ministers’ and civil servants’ musical chairs, which is more prevalent in the UK than in most other countries; impatient and activist ministers, such as Andrew Lansley with his reorganisation of the health service, and officials’ reticence to argue against their ministers’ plans; the lack of accountability for failure – ministers and civil servants rarely resign nowadays after a major blunder; poor pre-legislative scrutiny of Bills and the peripheral nature of Parliament when the government has a clear majority; and – the reason why there is so much poor policy-making in education, in my view – the operational disconnect between policy-making and implementation.
Not all government policies are blunders. The Clean Air Act of 1956 which brought an end to smogs in cities; the Road Safety Act of 1967 that introduced breath testing and compulsory seat belts; and the ban on smoking in public places in 2007 are examples of wholly beneficial legislation. In education, the change from O level and CSE to GCSE, a common examination system for all in 1986; local management of schools in 1990; the introduction of the pupil premium for disadvantaged children in 2011, are examples of policies that have been of benefit to millions of children.
But in education there have been too many bad policies, too much change for change’s sake, too many simultaneous changes which mean that it is almost impossible to judge the effectiveness of any one policy. Looking at the blunders that have been made across government helps to explain why teachers and school leaders are subjected to an onslaught of policies, many of which make the job of teaching more difficult. Legislators expect much of teachers; we should expect better of them.
John Dunford is chair of Whole Education, a former secondary head, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders and national pupil premium champion. He tweets as @johndunford