The Blunkett review and education’s democratic deficit

The Blunkett review is to be welcomed and its implementation would clearly help recreate an education system where there is none. However, it does not fully address English education’s democratic deficit.

“Standards not structures” never made much sense as a mantra. Politicians are right to signal that high standards for all are their main policy aim but the idea that the way education is organised has no bearing on standards is simply crazy. One just needs to look at England where we now have a chaotic non-system of competing providers and distorted markets which can only be described as “confusion not coherence”. We have a highly interventionist government which refuses to intervene in the one effective way it should; to develop an effective national education system.

Whoever wins next year’s general election will inherit the fractured landscape of English education. The challenge will be how to start healing the fractures and create a functional system which is actually capable of achieving high standards for all.

Enter David Blunkett, with his Review of education structures, functions and the raising of standards for all published a few weeks ago and commissioned by the Labour Party to inform their manifesto for 2015. The document is long and contains many detailed recommendations which have already attracted much comment (see below for a list). It was driven by two overriding objectives:

  • To raise standards and offer equal opportunity for all children.
  • To bring about coherence, consistency and collaboration to the education service.

These are vital aims and the 40 recommendations are mostly very welcome practical steps towards the creation of a system; something which is taken for granted in most countries but is quite impossible under the current English free-for-all with its plethora of competing schools, chains, sponsors and constant government-inspired market interventions.

In his introduction David Blunkett also provides a much better case for the importance of education than does the current draft Labour manifesto (see my comments on this here). Instead of the drear language of economic instrumentalism and guff about winning the global “race to the top” we are told that:

“A grasp of who we are, where we are and where we come from is essential to our sense of identity.”

“We have to provide the opportunity to build those thinking and critical skills which allow the analytical faculties to develop – to be able to challenge as well as to make sense of the world around us.”

The introduction ends with a flourish:

“Education is the great liberator; it can unlock what William Blake called those mind-forged manacles”.

Bernard Crick’s former student shows his commitment to education for citizenship and his belief in the liberating power of education and this gives real heart to the document. Labour would do well to adopt these sentiments as well as agreeing the recommendations.

At the centre of the Review is the proposal to create independent Directors of School Standards (DSS) who would be charged with driving up standards and would intervene or facilitate intervention where necessary, for example via Community Trusts or Education Incubation Zones. They would encourage schools to share good practice and be empowered to broker collaboration. They would be appointed by groups of local authorities from shortlists approved by the Secretary of State and relate to a forum and stakeholder panel. They would report annually to various elected representatives in ways which would encourage questioning and debate.

This is an improvement on what we have now. The Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs) currently being introduced will only oversee part of the school system, will be biased in favour of particular solutions and will have no real accountability to local people or their elected representatives.

However desirable though, the introduction of Directors of School Standards will not address the democratic deficit at the heart of English education. To be effective, such a key player as a DSS, with their vital responsibility for system-building, system improvement and system-change within their area, should have real local legitimacy. This is much diluted if it is exercised via representatives from a group of local councils. If not directly elected themselves, I would suggest that the DSS should be appointed by, and accountable to, a directly elected education authority. There is a good case for these strategic authorities to be regional or city-wide and to take on responsibility for 16-18 education as well. In London, for example, that authority could be the Greater London Authority.

Some people argue that we shouldn’t fetishize local democracy, that elections do not guarantee improvement and that one election every 4 years cannot address today’s real problems. Clearly, electoral politics does not solve everything but giving up on the democratic oversight of local public services denies us all our voice and leads to rule by technocrats and experts or, worse, the anarchy of the market.

Every citizen in England has a stake in education and has a right to know, for their area:

  • Who decides education policy and priorities?
  • Who defines and sets standards and tackles underperformance?
  • Who ensures the system is working fairly for everyone?
  • How do we get to question, debate and challenge them?
  • How can we remove and replace them?

Education policy is too important to leave solely to the secretary of state, to experts or to the market. It should be subject to scrutiny and debate locally as well as nationally. I think we should be arguing for elected education authorities, not as the only solution but to help create a new democratic space for education to be debated. We should trust ourselves to shape this debate and to elect people on the basis of their education policies. We might be surprised by how much better we can make things and any new DSS or RSC worth their salt should be delighted to report to an elected body supported by an engaged and vibrant local education community.

More commentary on the Blunkett Review:

Fiona Millar in The Guardian is broadly supportive of Blunkett’s “essential first step”

Richard Hatcher asks “where would the power lie?”

Robert Hill welcomes the proposals but has 3 caveats

John Howson criticises the proposals for their bureaucracy and lack of democracy

Local Schools Network’s Janet Downs welcomes the proposals but has reservations

Laura McInerney and Matt Hood compare Labour and coalition proposals

Matt Hood on what the middle tier should look like












About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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