The Blunkett Review – making it a reality

David Blunkett’s ‘Review of education structures, functions and the raising of standards for all’ is a significant document. It highlights and reinforces the weaknesses of the current mishmash of arrangements for overseeing the development and improvement of all schools. More significantly, for the purposes of this blog post, it provides a real sense of direction about the likely shape of Labour’s education policy and priorities a year out from next year’s general election.

A strong welcome

Blunkett’s proposals offer the opportunity to bring coherence to school improvement. The principle of school autonomy remains – not a surprise really since Blunkett did much to affirm the autonomy of schools when he was Secretary of State for Education: substantially raising the level of financial delegation to schools. But the vision is for autonomy to operate within a context of partnership and collaboration. Getting this balance right is strengthened by David’s recognition that the actions of one school can impact on another. Education improvement has to be more than a zero sum game – we need all schools in every area to move forward. So the plans to amend schools admissions, enforcement and appeals procedures and integrate place planning are welcome. And (hallelujah!) there is a single framework for overseeing the progress and development of all schools – irrespective of their type or status.

The document also contains some innovative ideas. For example, encouraging and enabling academies to move in and out of chains to bring greater geographical coherence. Or focusing funding agreements on outcomes and renewing them every three of five years – as recommend by the RSA/Pearson Academies’ Commission. The proposals for commissioning new school places rightly maintain a strong competitive ethos but bring coherence to a system which in many areas has been thrown into chaos by the ad hoc establishment of free schools. The creation of Education Incubation Zones would encourage the education system to continue to evolve in order to meet the changing demands of 21st century society.

Three caveats

I have three reservations about the proposals. I can see the case for kitemarking the supply of major school improvement providers – though I am not convinced that the market is broke. A better way forward might be for the kitemarking to be a voluntary arrangement in the first instance.

I also wish that the review had grasped the nettle of clarifying the role of the Office of Schools Commissioner and making it a statutory independent function. There is case for a revamped Schools Commissioner role to include the functions of the Schools’ Adjudicator – thus creating a single regulatory focus.

The approach towards the Pupil Premium is also slightly worrying. Yes, there is evidence that not all the money is being well used at present. But we are on a journey here. The role of the Education Endowment Foundation, the impact of the Ofsted inspection regime, the role of John Dunford as the Pupil Premium champion and the work of a good number of local authorities means that the additional funding is increasingly being better targeted and used. There is a growing focus on impact, so we should be wary of making major changes to the system at this point.

Be prepared

What does Labour need to do next? The Party must learn from its experience of coming into government in 1997. More was achieved more quickly in those policy areas where the detailed policy thinking and work had been done in advance. So having produced this paper Labour cannot rest on its laurels. Here are five ideas on some next steps the Party might take:

  1. Develop its education narrative – the Blunkett reforms are right but they need to be communicated in a way that parents, the media and the wider public can understand. Simple key messages might be:
  • Schools improve at a faster rate when they work together
  • Pupils enjoy better learning when teachers have the opportunity to work with staff from other schools on planning and reviewing lessons
  • There needs to be a fair and level playing field when it comes to admitting pupils to schools and assessing how well schools are improving
  • Supporting schools to improve is best organised locally rather than being decided by Whitehall Ministers and officials
  1. Draft instructions to counsel – for those not familiar with the Whitehall policymaking process this means preparing a policy document that enables the specialist lawyers to prepare a Bill for Parliament. This would provide a discipline for Labour to define the role and powers of the Director of Schools Standards (DSS) and the education panels that would support them. It would also help to think through how the proposed public duty for local authorities, schools and other providers to cooperate with the DSS in brokering collaboration would work.
  1. Consult with the Local Government Association on the new school oversight arrangements – particularly in relation to potential groupings of local authorities and relations between a DSS and constituent authorities. I don’t take the view – put forward by Jonathan Simons and Sam Freedman on Twitter – that local authorities are being completely written out of the script. As suggested in the Blunkett review it might make sense to take the boundaries of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) as the starting point – since this would help to integrate work on careers advice and post-16 provision. However, there are already some groupings of education authorities developing – particularly in London – and so there is also scope to explore whether these might provide a basis for some of the new arrangements.
  1. Set up some demonstration models – it might be possible for local groups of Labour local authorities such as in Manchester (where local authorities and schools have a strong history of working together collaboratively on school improvement) to appoint a DSS in a shadow form. However, any such scheme might be stymied if the Government’s formally appointed Regional Commissioner for overseeing academies refused to collaborate with the initiative.

Where authorities could progress the Blunkett agenda without hindrance would be encouraging the creation of Community Trusts for groups of primary schools. Several authorities have already or are currently working with their schools on forming local clusters. Legislation relating to Trust schools is already on the statute book and so the organizational vehicle is there to create formal groupings of primary schools. The only restraint is that it is difficult for voluntary aided faith schools to be formally part of such a Trust – because they are already a Trust. This needs discussion with church representatives – we should be encouraging faith schools to work with other local schools rather than just retreat into faith-based academy chain enclaves.

  1. Assess the costs – the coalition will no doubt try and dub the proposals as bureaucratic and costly. But the Blunkett plan would be able to build on the savings made from scrapping the regional Commissioner posts. There are also substantial resources going into employing a small army of civil servants and brokers who are monitoring, tracking and, where necessary, intervening in the 3,000 plus academies. These costs need to captured and quantified. It might also be possible to make savings from the Education Funding Agency budget. The more transparent financial regime advocated by Blunkett allied with the adoption of prudential corporate governance practices could reduce the need for the extensive financial monitoring that the government has put in place.

And for its next trick…

The Blunkett review marks a big step forward in Labour’s thinking. For its next trick it might want to think about how to turn the Ofsted regime (which has become an excessively high stakes regime) into something that retains rigour but is more supportive of school development!

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