Opinion: Is it time to rescue education policy from the hands of MPs?

When Labour’s shadow minister of education, Stephen Twigg, announced his “Office for Educational Improvement” idea, it was quite well received by many of us. It pushed a lot of our buttons, not least the welcome emphasis on evidence and the idea of protecting educational policy from the whims of politicians with “transient ambitions”.

The question that crossed my mind was how this might be combined with our liberal themes of localism and democracy to improve it further. So to start a debate, here’s a suggestion:

How we might “devolve” educational policy

We could create a council to deal with educational policy. Part of the council would be elected to represent the electorate. The country would be split into regions, each region having 5-7 or so members elected by STV and would form an education board for that region. The board would be responsible for delivering education in that area. The members of the board would also take part in the council that set national policy.

The other part of the council could be made up of representatives from unions, academics, business organisations etc, and any other body with an interest in education. These representatives would bring a rich combination of research, evidence and frontline experience in issues of education.

Potential advantages

Off the top of my head, advantages could include:

  • Independence from Westminster – Instead of big headline grabbing reforms and pet projects by politicians whose party was voted in due to the opposition screwing up the economy, decisions would be made by people involved with the sector and politicians dedicated to education.
  • Stability – Rather than decision-making swinging like a political pendulum between the absolute control of opposing parties, the council would provide a more stable and balanced decision-making chamber, allowing for more long-term decision-making.
  • Innovation – Different regional boards will be willing to try out different approaches. Since experimenting on a small-scale is less risky than on a large-scale, we’re likely to see more of it.
  • Localism – Local boards would have the last say on whether a certain approach is taken in their area. This will ensure that decisions made are more locally sensitive.
  • Relevant Voices – Including union and academic representatives will increase the role of evidence and the voice of frontline staff in decision-making. Industrial action would be less likely compared to if they were frozen out.

Transition

At first the council could be formed to “advise” the Department of Education, the minister having the last word on what is taken for legislation. If the council proves to be successful, we could potentially abolish the department of education, devolving all education policy to this council. The council would have an education budget set by the treasury and the rest would be in its hands.

Devolve health policy too?

The NHS has also suffered from government top down organisations. The medical institutions and professional bodies that have felt alienated by the various government reforms over the ages might welcome reforms that take policy out of the hands of ambitious MPs and into a council that included their representatives.

So there’s my suggestion.

Is it time to rescue education policy from the hands of MPs?

*Daniel Henry’s parents are both teachers. Having heard extensively of the havoc Gove is causing in the education system, he’d be quite relieved to see educational policy taken out of the hands of reckless ministers.

* Daniel Henry is a member from Leicester

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15 Comments

  • Whilst i agree that local decision making is important, i think you’ll find we still have LEAs that could perform that function.

    So we just need government to get out of the way

  • Daniel Henry 26th Apr '12 - 6:05pm

    When you say “out of the way”, do you mean scrap all national policy like national curriculum and national standards?

    If not, we’d need a level above LEAs to deal with national issues.

    Also, are LEAs democratically accountable to local people?

  • Independent schools manage to be quite successful without councils or departments or authorities or a national curriculum. Whether you agree with them or not, they serve a significant proportion of the population and seem to provide a high standard of education. Why can’t we trust the teachers and governors of state schools in the same way as parents trust independent schools?

  • Malcolm Todd 26th Apr '12 - 8:52pm

    @Redndead
    So-called LEAs are just local councils — County councils or unitary authorities — so they’re elected based on whatever combination of local and national factors the electors in that area are influenced by, not elected specifically to deal with education, as Daniel proposes.

    @Julian
    Well, that would be one model. But who chooses the governors? Or pays the school? A regional board could decide to devolve all responsibility to individual schools and just pay them for the pupils they take: that would be one of the “different approaches” that Daniel cites as an advantage of the overall scheme.

    @Daniel
    As the above suggests, I rather like this idea in principle. I agree that it is probably the way forward for health and social care as well (which, contrary to some of the guff talked about our manifesto, is effectively what the party policy on h&ss was at the last election — including the gradualism you suggest for education).

  • @Julian:
    I think the problem with “trusting” teachers and governors in state schools as we do in independent schools, is that with state schools the parent doesn’t have the freedom of choice that an independent school user has. If my state school is poor I don’t have a comparable freedom to seek alternative stated suppliers, especially among the really good schools.

  • Daniel Henry 26th Apr '12 - 9:34pm

    Cheers Malcolm.
    Seems we’re on a similar wavelength!

  • John Richardson 27th Apr '12 - 8:54am

    The “council” would be captured by producer intersts and any change of change would be blocked.

    That depends on the structure and composition of the council. If the elected component, representing ‘consumer’ interests, outnumber the expert and workforce components then that is not likely to happen.

  • “sub standard sattee dcuation system”

    Good example.

  • Daniel Henry 27th Apr '12 - 2:46pm

    @ Simon
    As John pointed out that will depend on how the council is composed. Naturally we’ll need a good balance between producer and consumer interests.

    As Matthew pointed out STV should ensure the elected component stays balanced.

    The unelected component wouldn’t just have to be from “producer interests”. Business interests could be there to report on what skills school leavers are lacking at the moment and what needs to be worked on. Child welfare experts could also be there to push for what care that parents need for their child’s happiness and wellbeing.

    It’s all a matter of finding a balance and instituting a culture where where these competing interests work together for mutual benefit.

  • Michael Bryant 29th Apr '12 - 3:01pm

    The problem with an independent council taking resposibility for services (either health or education) with a budget from the Treasury is that they would have no representative within Government to put the case for funding. TRhe Treasury could sqeeze down the budget and blame the consequences on the service provider. Governments always like to delegate difficult decisions while taking credit if all goes well.
    I can understand the doubts about trusting the professions to get on and use their skills but I should point out that in the days, before 1974, when we trusted health providers, they delivered the NHS services with a staff of about 500,000. Now that there are targets for everything, performance reviews, and huge litigation costs, the staff has nearly doubled and most of the new ones are in some are of management or support services.

  • Here is yet another proposal to elect parallel representatives.

    If we really believe in localism, we will have to learn to trust our local representatives, councillors and MPs, not bypass them.

  • Daniel Henry 29th Apr '12 - 11:38pm

    @Michael
    As it is the Treasury already determines the funding of each department and is responsible for any cut backs. The department lobbies for funding, justifies it, but the chancellor of the exchequer is ultimately responsible for whether it goes ahead or not.
    The only difference this devolution would make

    @Bill
    Localism doesn’t necessarily mean that MPs should deal with all issues.
    The article gave good reasons why educational policy would be better dealt with seperately from parliament, especially as it is often decided by which party the electorate think will best handle the economy. I don’t see how have a council and local boards contradicts localism.
    Councillors under this system could still have the same local responsibilities.

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