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Sam Freedman: Conservative education policy is going in the right direction

Freedman Sam Freedman is Head of Policy Exchange’s Education Unit.

One of the benefits of the Conservatives releasing “Green Papers” is that it allows time for discussion. The education paper provides a good opportunity for those on the centre-right to come to some conclusions as to what a school choice revolution really means. As Andrew Haldenby and Laura Kounine of Reform note, the argument on the Paper so far has been “between those commentators who conclude that the proposals would indeed deliver a revolution in schooling – and those who are concerned that the methods of reform might defeat its admirable intentions.” 

They go on to agree with Anne McElvoy that “The Gove/Cameron charter is frankly extraordinary in its apparent desire to have even more decisions taken by the Secretary of State than the most ardent centralisers of New Labour.”

This is unfair. While much of the press coverage seemed to focus on things the Conservative party would “make” schools do, the Green Paper actually suggests no compulsory measures beyond a new reading test. But there are a number of practices – phonics, uniform etc. – that are recommended as drivers of school improvement.  Reform seem to be arguing that professional autonomy in education can only exist when the Government abdicates itself of any responsibility for schools. Yet this is to confuse autonomy with a lack of accountability.

At Policy Exchange we are currently working on a project looking at some of the most improved education systems from around the world including Sweden and Ontario (where the phrase ‘Raising the Bar, Closing the Gap’ comes from). The message is clear. Yes schools must have autonomy; professionals must have the freedoms to do their jobs and parents must have choices. But Government should also offer clear guidelines (not rules) for achieving success and then provide strong measures of accountability to make sure that success is achieved. Without this, schools can feel isolated and parents are left to make decisions without information.

This is what the Green Paper offers. On synthetic phonics, the position is not that all schools should be forced to teach it, but that all schools should be assessed against the benchmark of successful schools that are using phonics. Your version works too? Then that’s fine. (I’m not sure Ofsted are the best people to assess this – at least in their current form – but there are no viable alternatives at the moment).

Likewise on discipline. The Conservatives note, correctly, that in most successful schools pupils wear uniforms and teachers can immediately enforce punishments. If a school manages to be successful without doing these things then, again, that’s fine. But surely it is not unreasonable for central government to assess best practice and use it as a benchmark for failing schools? Trusting professionals is all very well, but why should we expect them to constantly re-invent the wheel?

Reform also complain that the proposed supply-side reforms would see power taken away from local authorities, only to be placed in the hands of central government. I can see two problems with this argument.

First, the powers are not equivalent. Local authorities actually run most state schools:  they are responsible for the school's admissions, own the school's estate and employ the school's staff. Moreover they top-slice 10-20% of each school’s budget to pay for their own administration and for services they believe their schools require. A funding agreement with the DCSF is just a contract whereby the school will agree to meet minimum standards in return for state money. As any academy head will tell you, the latter is much preferable to the former.

Second, I’m not sure what Reform is proposing in place of central funding agreements. I cannot imagine they are supporting the current system of local authority control, so what’s the alternative? The liberal fantasy of a purely independent system where the state’s only involvement is to give parents a voucher may be tempting, but it isn’t realistic. Where market failures have happened in previously public sector industries it has been due to severe information asymmetry. Government has to measure outcomes otherwise parents will have little idea of where to spend their voucher.

None of this is to say that the Green Paper shouldn’t become a more radical White Paper. I would allow all schools to have the freedoms of academies, not just more new schools. And I would look to completely overhaul the accountability framework so as to include relevant information beyond exam results. But this is the beginning of the discussion not the end and the direction of travel must be applauded.


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