In education, David Cameron is not the heir to Blair

19 April 2016

As I was arguing last week, this is a Parliament of change, including change in personnel, not least the Prime Minister himself. It is worth asking what David Cameron’s personal legacy is in the various areas of policy. Last week I concluded that he leaves strong foundations on NHS reform but not on Whitehall. This week, education.

David Cameron became Conservative leader at a moment when support for academy schools had become a litmus test of reform intentions. The new leader firmly supported academies, and with them the principles of self-government and autonomy. The recent decision to turn all state schools into academies by 2022 follows the direction of travel he established in 2005. (For interest, I’ve quoted below a section of the speech that launched Mr Cameron’s leadership campaign.)

In other respects however the Prime Minister has held back the autonomy for which he called. The National Curriculum is a case in point. The logic of the Government’s policy on academies is that the National Curriculum should disappear (since all academies have the freedom to choose their own subjects and teaching styles). It remains firmly in place. It would not surprise me if, in the end, the Government decides to reimpose the National Curriculum on academies, perhaps in a truncated form. David Cameron has also stood for “rigour” in standards, enforced by government. Qualifications have to mean something of course but other bodies (such as universities) might be better placed to uphold those standards, as employers do for apprenticeships.

The corollary of autonomy is competition, to help keep self-governing schools honest. The free schools initiative is important in this respect but the Government’s ambition for free schools in this Parliament is lukewarm. The target of 500 schools represents 2 per cent of all state schools in England. A lively free school programme would have many more members than that. Equally a future Prime Minister can support for-profit schools in state education, exactly as the Government is now doing for the NHS (quote from the November 2015 Spending Review at 2 below). There was word that Michael Gove supported the idea when Secretary of State for Education. The new chains of academy chains could increase competition if they break down the regional monopolies in schools that currently exist.

In his September 2015 speech on the principles of public service reform, the Prime Minister also advocated “efficiency”. The ring-fencing of the schools budget has prevented the kind of conversation on value for money has been seen in other areas. Reform is exploring the data on school efficiency right now.

David Cameron has never described the ideas of parental choice and autonomy with the enthusiasm that Tony Blair did in office (see 3 below). His successor can go on to do so.

1.       David Cameron, speech, Wednesday 29 June 2005

“Let me give you an example from a debate I’m involved in right now: the Government’s City Academy programme. There’s a huge coalition building up to oppose the Government on Academies. Labour backbenchers. The teaching unions. Many LEAs. Large parts of the educational establishment. Influential press commentators.

It’s incredibly tempting for an Opposition to score points by opposing Academies.

But I’ve been to the Peckham Academy and the Harris City Technology College in Croydon, and I simply ask myself these questions:

Is it right to get businesses involved in funding education?

Is it right to direct resources to inner city areas where children from disadvantaged backgrounds have had a poor start in life?

Is it right to give schools freedom to innovate and specialise?

My answer to all these questions is a resounding ‘yes.’ And that’s why I won’t oppose the Government on Academies. I will back them, and make as many constructive proposals as I can to improve them.”

2.       Spending Review, HM Treasury, November 2015

“The government will encourage long term partnerships between the NHS and the private sector to modernise buildings, equipment and services, and deliver efficiencies, especially where these partnerships support the upgrade of diagnostics capabilities and the development of new models of care, such as Accountable Care Organisations and hospital groups.”

3.       Tony Blair, speech on education, October 2005

“In both the NHS and in education, there will in one sense be a market.  The patient and the parent will have much greater choice.  But it will only be a market in the sense of consumer choice, not a market based on private purchasing power.  And it will be a market with rules.  Personal wealth won’t buy you better NHS service.  The funding for schools will be fair and equal no matter what their status; and there will be no return to selection aged 11.”

 

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