Political impact: from the least state-controlled to the most in 24 years

An essay by Michael Bassey 

Since 1988, all governments - conservative, labour and now the lib-dem conservative coalition - with the best of intentions, but in ignorance and deafness, have trammelled schools with excessive testing, obsessive inspection and a restrictive curriculum which has taken from schools their professional autonomy, damaged the status of teachers in the public eye, and in consequence endangered the all-round education of the nation’s young. Each of twelve secretaries of state, with a coterie of junior ministers, has tried to micromanage the affairs of schools, sending out from London instructions that someone in their department thought was a good idea, but with little understanding of the consequences in some of the 21,000 schools affected.

Prior to 1988 - Least-Controlled Education System …

We need to remember that political intervention into the actual work of schools only began in 1988, with the passing of the Education Reform Act - when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister. Since then the English education system has moved from being probably the least state-controlled system in the world, to the most.

The story is told that R A Butler, president of the Board of Education in the early 1940s during World War II, was asked by Winston Churchill, prime minister, to ensure that the schools behaved with more patriotism. Butler replied, I have no say in what is done in schools. A few years later, the Labour minister for Education in 1947, George Tomlinson, said Minister knows nowt about curriculum

Anthony Crosland, who was secretary of state for education in 1965-67 said:

    the nearer one comes to the professional content of education, the more indirect the minister’s influence is. And I’m sure this is right ... generally I didn’t regard either myself or my officials as in the slightest degree competent to interfere with the curriculum. We are educational politicians and administrators, not professional educators.

… but with Serious Problems

But in the 1970s and 1980s schools began to get a bad press. Sir Keith Joseph, who later became secretary of state for education, made a political speech on a perceived decline in national life, attributable to the education system. The academic writer Brian Simon described Joseph’s call for a ‘remoralisation’ of national life in these terms:

    Values were being systematically undermined. Parents were being diverted from their duty as regards education, health, morality, advice and guidance. Delinquency, truancy, vandalism, hooliganism, illiteracy - all these accompanied the decline in educational standards.

Others saw economic worries as due to faulty schooling. A senior industrialist said:

    I blame the teachers for the shortcomings of manufacturing industry

and the prime minister, James Callaghan, in a speech at Ruskin College in 1976, expressed concern from industry that new recruits:

    Sometimes do not have the basic tools to do the job that is required … there appears to be a lack of relation between schools and industry.

At that time parents in general knew little about the educational progress of their children. Teachers tended to work in isolation of each other: some were excellent, some mediocre, and some were poor. Children, and parents if they realised, had no option but to suffer the latter because incompetence as a teacher did not lead to dismissal and only rarely to help from more able colleagues. Headteachers tended to act as laid back administrators rather than educational leaders of their schools.

Local education authorities varied considerably in the extent of support for teaching and innovation in schools. There was a tendency for fashion to influence practice, spread by the newly trained teachers from the colleges and by local authority advisers, and based on the limited evidence of classroom success by a few outstanding teachers rather than by careful research and professional judgement.

Education Reform Act 1988

In a rapidly changing world the school system was not responding fast enough to the economic challenge of the time - the competitive need to replace the UK’s declining manufacturing base with new industries manned by a technically skilled work-force. The teaching profession should have recognised this and taken appropriate action. It didn’t and so it was government that intervened - in a clumsy and bureaucratic manner which eventually achieved a raising of standards in the basic skills, but made many mistakes in the process.

The Education Reform Act, designed by Kenneth Baker, secretary of state for Education, was passed in 1988. It was the most massive intervention in the education system of the twentieth century and, in terms of curriculum, assessment and school management, reversed earlier political notions about the autonomy of teacher and schools.

Changes at the Helm Since 1988
thirteen Secretaries of State

Since the Education Reform Act there have been eleven cabinet ministers responsible for Education, with an average tenure of less than two years. Each has added to and tinkered with the political control that Baker introduced.

• Kenneth Baker (1986-89) conservative Margaret Thatcher PM

• John MacGregor (1989-90) conservative Margaret Thatcher PM

• Kenneth Clarke (1990-92) conservative John Major PM

• John Patten (1992-94) conservative John Major PM

• Gillian Shephard (1994-97) conservative John Major PM

• David Blunkett (1997-2001) labour Tony Blair PM

• Estelle Morris (2001-02) labour Tony Blair PM

• Charles Clarke (2002-04) labour Tony Blair PM

• Ruth Kelly (2004-06) labour Tony Blair PM

• Alan Johnson (2006-07) labour Tony Blair PM

• Ed Balls(2007-10) labour Gordon Brown PM

• Michael Gove (2010- 14) coalition David Cameron PM

x Nicki Morgan (2014- coalition and conservative David Cameron PM

As Barry Shearman MP, a long-serving chair of the House of Commons select committee on education, once said:

A school that was changing its leadership as regularly … would be put in special measures immediately.

It is time, not to change the leadership again, but to change the system and to free schools from government control.

If you've not read these already click on these links to see the reasons why.

Seismic Change Needed

The evidence of this web-site, drawn from a wide variety of sources, makes abundantly clear that external testing, Ofsted inspections and the all-pervading nature of the national curriculum, are restricting the chances of the nation’s children getting a well-rounded, balanced primary education.

But it is clear that external testing, Ofsted inspections and an obligatory national curriculum in some form are here to stay – unless there is a seismic change. In politics the actual policies decided on maybe a reflection of what a party thinks the electorate will vote for, a reflection of the underlying dogma of the party, a reflection of the particular views of senior members of the party, or a reflection of what the chancellor of the exchequer will be prepared to fund!

In terms of the dogmatism which abounds it is clear that any seismic change will need to come from the electorate.

How much money could be saved?

A question that is difficult to answer is, how much do these cost year-by-year? Reasonable guesses are that primary school SATs cost around £30 million and primary school Ofsted inspections cost around £70 million. It would be a useful parliamentary question to try to discover just how much would be saved annually if external tests and inspections in primary schools were stopped and the national curriculum made non-obligatory.

It looks as though a saving of £100 million is a good estimate. What is certain is that the reduction in stress on teachers by such a seismic change would be phenomenal – and would be a jump-start for taking full responsibility for their teaching.

Whereas £100 million could pay for about 4,000 new teachers who could make a significant contribution to raising the standard of attainment in schools with children with learning difficulties, in the present climate – I am writing this in the economic gloom of early 2010 – it may be the kind of cutback in government expenditure by the Department for Children, Schools and Families that is going to be necessary as a result of bailing out our imperilled financial institutions.

Deregulate and depoliticise schooling

It is a curious feature of contemporary politics that governments that have spectacularly failed to regulate the nation’s financial institutions have sought to obsessively control the nation’s schools.

The moment of truth for both has arrived – the time when one should be regulated and the other deregulated.

But beyond deregulation, schools need to be depoliticised. Aspiring ministers, and shadow ministers, should no longer be able to exhibit their political worthiness (or lack of it) by forays into the work of schools. This must be taken out of state control.

It is time to restore responsibility for education to schools and to let teachers rebuild the public trust that they need in order to be effective guardians of the development of the young.

As Professor Robin Alexander, Director of the Cambridge Primary Review, said in 2008:

    Teachers do, and must, exercise professional judgement on the basis of what only they know about their pupils: a national education system belongs not to ministers and officials, but to all of us.

This page was slightly amended on 20 February 2013, on 15 March 2015 and 11 November 2015