Wendell Berry has said, on a number of occasions, that just because an argument is on the losing side, that is not a reason that it should not be made. Well, this statement, from the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s autumn statement on 25 November last year, should cause us the deepest worry, and rally those who long for a local expression of education linked to the services that are provided to the communities that the schools serve:
We will make local authorities running schools a thing of the past. This will help save around £600m on the Education Services Grant.
The second part of the statement is window dressing. A government like ours can pretty much find £600 million from wherever it likes, or just increase the PSBR. It is a facile statement stuck next to something so draconian, vindictive and hurtful to the common good, that by comparison it seems almost not worth saying. It is almost like a person offering to clean your windows after he has broken into your house and taken your children. Put £600 million next to the sums that governments have paid to bail out banking crises and it all looks very paltry indeed. Put next to the sums intended for replacing Trident (“The Ministry of Defence has said it will cost £17.5bn to £23.4bn to procure the replacement system. That is the estimate at 2013-14 prices. Of that, between £12.9bn and £16.4bn would be spent on the submarines themselves” this from the BBC) and it is obscenely small.
Local authorities, no matter how much in need of reform and decent funding they might be, are an obstacle to the central control that all governments since the 1979-1983 Thatcher administration have itched to appropriate to themselves. Nobody has dared yet to do this, and the frustration of the current government smacks of the fact that local authorities are full of the wrong kind of people running them. The very longing for independence and market freedoms that is inherent in the skewed philosophy of the Mammon-obsessed wing of the Conservative government means that only those local authorities that are fully in ideological line with the government’s thinking are regarded as friends. The current administration, like many others before it, puts politics and ideology before what actually exists on the ground serving people. Yes, Osborne has made an effort at hacking into the deficit (we have no-one to compare him with, so we do not yet know whether anybody else could have done a better job, or actually, whether he has done any kind of a good job at all) but at the price of rendering unrecognisable the public service ethos that pertained since the war. The idea of a social democracy in Britain mediated through locally-accountable councils representing the variety of expectations we find from region to region is, apparently, so undesirable to the present administration that only a centrally-controlled provision will do.
It is a horrible prospect for those who have worked hard to enable local authorities to find their voice as public servants. So, because I am here making a losing argument, apparently, and my voice may not count for much in the future (if it does at all now!), here are some things I either hate or detest. Just so you know.
- I hate the way that the government has reduced funding to local authorities in the name of austerity while protecting the banks whose greed caused much of it, some of which should have been allowed to fail.
- I hate the fact that Regional Schools Commissioners are unelected, with powers to turn a school into an academy with no right of appeal from parents or a local community.
- I hate the drive to centralisation at the UK level whilst the hypocrites driving that are busy criticising it at a European level.
- I detest the shallow self-serving philosophy that the current government has that thinks that “being economically well-off” is all that matters and that the common life of communities can be eroded as a legitimate trade-off, with “economic viability” as the only acceptable argument.
- I hate the way that this government adamantly refuses to trust the teaching profession and its leaders. Worse, that it says it does but in fact distrusts them even more than the worst of Blair’s antagonism toward the public services. To find that teachers are among the most trusted professions, where politicians are the least trusted, says something about the imperative of those at Westminster to listen to us.
- I detest the way that political parties of all stripes have to seek victory over clarity, as though that would help.
- I detest the way that OFSTED is used as a tool of school improvement. This is a subset of hate number 5 above, but the way that the inspectorate is used as an instrument of policy stinks. It should stand away from policy makers and just report, contributing to the clarity of the debate on what is good for schools. When it does do that, in for instance the provision of information that academies do or do not outperform maintained schools, we can have a decent debate about it.
I have been trying to wangle a place on a conference in February in Philadephia, but alas, it is full, which saves me having to ask my governors.
The United Opt Out movement exists to serve that part of the education profession that sees the corporate takeover of education via charters in the US as a direct threat to the integrity of public schooling. It encourages opt-outs of high-stakes testing and encourages parents to work with and support local superintendents of school districts and back them by supporting the schools in their district.
It is the same fight here. Money drains from public schooling to the private schools, in which category I suppose we must begin to see academies, as unpalatable as that sounds. Charters are undoubtedly worse than academies because it is still possible here for a school to “academise” and nobody really to notice the difference.
So my argument then swings towards our own local authorities in England and Wales and the excellent, holistic, thoughtful work that they do. Whilst we may always have a gripe with a LA – the nature of the beast when there are conflicting demands, such as the current bun-fight over whether we take over our Children’s Centres or not – they are undoubtedly the right organisation to be charged with the safety, care and education of our young people. Across Europe, municipalities do the same thing, and are respected for doing so. I know the LGA is perhaps not the organisation to ask, but this survey they produced a couple of years ago indicates how much more trusted local government elected officials are, than the local MP.
But beyond the issue of trust, is the issue of what we are trying to create as a society. Do we want everyone linked to the umbilicus of the DfE through centralised funding for schools? Or do we want to create a locally-flexible, democratically-accountable system of schooling that enables good local relationships to be at the heart of what makes us a community of humans in a particular area? I know which I would choose. Even if I lose the argument.