Joe Cawley is Senior Consultant at Calvert Communications and leads on Educational Development.

In this week’s Budget, George Osborne announced that all local authority schools in England and Wales will become academies by 2022. The academies push has been at the heart of the Government’s education policy since the Coalition was formed in 2010. It is arguably one of the greatest achievements of Conservative Ministers, and the evidence is beginning to surface to show the positive effect it has had on school quality.

It should be no surprise therefore that this latest step has been taken; it can be seen as the culmination of the project started as brainchild of Michael Gove in that Coalition. This move will be welcomed by most ConservativeHome readers and should improve the quality of schooling through competition in state school provision. There is, however, a wider context to this move that could provide the model for a better type of governance – not just in education but across the state.

The academies programme is designed to free schools from the bureaucratic functions of local government and hand powers to the teachers and governors who know best what their pupils need. In this process, it will remove the need for Local Education Authorities (LEA), and thus remove a layer of government. This localised, smaller state approach is clearly rooted in Conservative principles of elevating the individual above the state and giving direct responsibility and accountability to those closest to the ground.

If the system is maintained on these principles, there is every chance for increased efficiency and, most crucially, better educational outcomes. The fear is that these principles are forgotten. Another way of looking at the academies programme is as a direct centralisation of all educational control. In his Budget, the Chancellor announced extra funding for secondary schools that want to offer pupils additional activities. The crucial part of this is ‘want to’. If the Government believes in its academies it must, at every step, avoid forcing changes upon them and allow the teachers and governors that have been empowered to decide for themselves what is best for their pupils.

Government has a tendency to overly involve itself in functions it should not. When a crisis happens – and it will happen – governments often provide a knee jerk response. This usually means directly interfering to resolve the crisis to placate the outraged voices of the media.  This impulse must be resisted. The Conservative Party has not created academies just to move bureaucratic commissars from LEAs to the Department for Education.

If this government, and subsequent governments, can allow the academies programme to do what it was conceived to do, it can signal a new and brighter way of governing the nation state. Whilst in education the state, through OFSTED, would ensure standards, it wouldnot prescribe how those standards are met. There would be differentiation between state schools equivalent to the variation in private school provision. These schools would compete for students by improving and specialising, raising standards and increasing choice.

This model can be applied across government departments. From Heath to Transport, local responsibility and accountability, with a minimum standard enforced by a regulator, can create innovation, competition and specialisation. By removing layers of interference the number of bureaucratic functionaries can be reduced, saving the taxpayer money which can be reinvested in services or redistributed as tax breaks.

Tied to this push would be a reorganisation of the regulatory system in the UK. Currently regulators across sectors are all separate and distinct entities. Whilst they meet through the UK Regulators Network they all have separate CEOs, hiring policies, backroom staff and so on. To make a more effective regulator, the field itself needs to be professionalised as a career path. In the same way that the civil service is one entity covering all areas with a clear career path, so should be the UK Regulators Network, with a fast stream programme and clear progression to attract the best and brightest.

With devolved control, minimum standards and an effective regulatory body, policymakers could step away from day to day management and become more of a governing body, able to see the wood from the trees and not get subsumed in departments. This would provide better on the ground delivery, quicker and more effective righting of any breaches of minimum standards and policy decisions taken with a broader and more impartial view of what is happening in the sector.

You may think that this is too much of an extrapolation from the Chancellor’s announcement; however, the academies announcement could be the starting gun for a different type of government; a more effective, cheaper, de-centralised, responsive and accountable way of running the nation’s services. All it needs is for the Department for Education to let the teachers and governors get on with the job they know best.

18 comments for: Joe Cawley: The Budget’s academies expansion. More centralised control – or more freedom and better results?

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