Free schools and academies: replacing local authority control with cental government control is not the answer

British governments regularly make changes to school education with little warning or thinking through the consequences for schools: this is damaging and counterproductive. But it is the inevitable result of having a system run by the state in what remains a highly centralised way. Reforms or changes are imposed from the top down, and across the board with little or no variation to take account of local circumstances. As a result, the whole system is very prone to fads instead of genuine and decentralised innovation, experimentation, and discovery. This dysfunctional pattern of heavy handed top down ‘reform’ that we have seen repeatedly for thirty years or more is the result not of particular politicians or policies but of the nature of the system, when combined with some popularly accepted ideas. Individual schools need genuine freedom from the state to innovate, achieve and drive up standards

Successive governments have already taken two huge positive steps with the introduction of free schools and in encouraging the conversion of existing schools into academies. Both of these types of schools are funded by the government, but are outside local authority control, so they have greater control over how they are run. They can set their own salary and conditions for staff, and they can change the length of school terms or the school day. The benefits of these schools is that they are more independent, so headteachers and teachers can cater more to the needs and circumstances of their pupils. This freedom allows innovation to take place and through competition with other schools, it drives up standards (this was shown to be the case by research produced from Policy Exchange last year). The problem remains that local authority control has been replaced by central government control. The government now should rein back. It should only retain a minimal role in school education (ensuring that there is no misuse or abuse in the system and perhaps setting out an advisory curriculum/minimum standard). Yet Whitehall (i.e. the central government) continues to heavy-handedly interfere in school affairs.

The principal problem for school education thus continues to be the centralised, top-down culture of Whitehall.  This was exemplified by the announcement of a new policy last week by education secretary Nicky Morgan. She introduced mandatory times table testing for all pupils by age eleven. The government plans to roll out these tests across the country in 2017 starting with a pilot this summer. As with many previous education policies, this new change will not be trialled, tested or evaluated to determine if it improves pupil learning. Moreover, the policy does not seem to leave any room for local councils and individual schools to manoeuvre according to their own conditions. For instance, some primary schools may be extremely strong in maths and thus desire to focus on other subjects; yet these new tests means teachers will have no choice but to devote greater time to it in order to ensure pupils ably pass these times table tests. This ongoing method of policymaking goes against the rationale of setting coherent policies with evidence and proper evaluation – especially policies that can be adapted for local circumstances. The constant trickle of changes being made in how schools are run nationwide is worrying.

Crucially, Whitehall’s imposition of policies on schools around the country is still stifling creative freedom, autonomy and adaptation. Yes, schools are being encouraged to turn into academies free from local authority control but not free from central government control. As well as tending to follow the national curriculum, they also follow admissions rules, special educational needs rules and many other statutory guidance set by the Department of Education. They are thus still subject to government meddling – regardless of their status as academies or free schools. This is not yet true freedom and the recent policy on mandatory times table testing amply demonstrates this (to name other instances, Nicky Morgan is currently considering reintroducing national key stage one tests for all seven year olds, and the government has previously mandated that ‘British values’ are taught at school).

These problems have long been perpetuated by the monopolisation of school education at the hands of the government in combination with the democratic process. Every government that comes into power seemingly finds it irresistible to supplement, revise or even supplant the school education system nationwide with its own ideas. Politicians are incentivised to improve the status quo to win more votes in the next election cycle. There is nothing wrong with this in itself – changes can lead to improvement. Yet successive governments have generally forced through changes in school education nationwide without any prior testing, extended pilot or considering local circumstances (or even where there is piloting, usually being blind to most of its lessons). Sometimes changes are made just so that the government can signal to voters that they are ‘doing something’.

This is why we need an education system that is fully decentralised, much more pluralistic and not controlled by government. Teachers and headteachers would then have the freedom to choose how to deliver education without policy interruptions from the government. School education truly freed from the binds of government will be able to find radical new ways of delivering education, adapt better to local circumstances and deliver greater quality at lower costs. The history of school education in England for the past three decades or more has been dictated by the whims of the party in power; this has to end. Governments have already taken huge steps forward with the push for free schools and conversion of existing schools to academies. It should now completely stop interfering with the running of schools altogether if it is to allow them to prosper.