At last year’s Wellington Festival of Education, I asked Tristram Hunt how Labour would avoid giving local authorities their ball back. He
referred me to the review being carried out by Blair’s first education secretary, David Blunkett, who has now reported.
The eye-catching proposal is for a system of French-style Prefects, local commissioners selected from a list of nominees prepared by the Secretary of State’s Schools Commissioner and responsible for clusters of local authorities. Local authority directors will be under a public duty to co-operate with the Prefect, and will hold him or her to account by scrutinising results and acting as advocates for parents.
The Prefect, however, will not be accountable to any local authority, but, in effect, to central government. When appointing prefects, my old headmaster would intone in assembly that, “These boys have my full authority throughout the school.” Mr Blunkett’s will have the Secretary of State’s full authority throughout the country.
To do what? To deliver – “world-class education in first-class facilities” (remember “Excellence for all”?). Mr Blunkett sees himself as a traditionalist, but, once we read past his endorsement of “memory tests”, we find a return to the agenda of “Every Child Matters”, the basis of the Year Zero reforms of 2005, when subjects were no longer reported on in school inspections, and achievement was downgraded to half of one of five educational goals, boosted in practice by the results in the fake vocational courses exposed by Professor Woolf.
Hidden in recommendation 38 out of 40 is the conclusion that the extension of Labour’s National Leadership College to include teaching and learning is “a mistake”, to be corrected by a return of the old Training and Development Agency. No argument is presented for this change – it is simply presented as “in line with submissions received” probably from progressive “teacher educators”, whose ball has also been taken away from them.
A side issue is a strong hint that the coalition’s move towards fairer funding of schools outside Labour’s heartlands is to be reversed. We can therefore expect a return to the scandalous neglect of the needs of poorer children in areas like Cambridgeshire. There are some good ideas in this seventy-page document, notably encouraging local schools to work together in federations, but they don’t amount to much in comparison with the big changes above, and reflect a series of misunderstandings at the heart of David Blunkett’s thinking on education, that led to his failure as a minister.
Before the 1997 election, he convinced me – in fact, Blair himself convinced me – that Labour was determined to raise standards. I didn’t vote for them, but, like most people, gave them a fair wind. Then came two colossal errors. First, new regulations made it very difficult, if not impossible, for schools to deal with poor behaviour. As this was and remains the biggest threat to learning and standards, and as Mr Blunkett presented himself as a traditionalist, I couldn’t see why he did this, and still can’t. Even the modest sanction of immediate detention, introduced by Michael Gove and Nick Gibb, was not made available to schools. They were supposed to raise standards and accommodate disruption at the same time.
Then Mr Blunkett appointed people to take charge of his new national strategies whose approach was completely opposed to his own professed traditionalism. The phonics, that some of us had worked so hard to insert into the national curriculum for reading, was replaced, on the sole authority of the strategy’s director, by the guessing game approach, rebranded as “searchlights”. Spelling was ignored in tests for eleven year olds, which progressives marked in ways that suited themselves.
Effective calculation was replaced by estimation (guesswork), ineffective written methods designed to get round weak knowledge of tables, and calculators. In short, the national strategies he unleashed went in precisely the opposite direction to that he had intended, and targets were missed. Estelle Morris took the flak, but the fault lay with David Blunkett’s poor judgement.
Will his prefects fare better? I doubt it. As Dr Hunt put it recently in the Guardian, “…for better or worse, we are not France.”
Finally, a surprise. I was not a fan of Mr Drew in C4’s Educating Essex, but his School for Boys, C4 Tuesdays, has brilliant insights both into the impact of behavioural difficulties on family life, and on an approach that seems to work. Children who started the week punching their parents and swearing at them, finished behaving perfectly on a visit to the library. More to come.