Thursday, 16 July 2009

Devolution can require a push from the centre

I have a column in this week's Public Finance, where I argue that the development of devolved institutions like academies often requires a degree of central pressure - and will need strong accountability. You can read it here. Here's an extract:

Recent trends have been contradictory when it comes to local government. Both Labour and the Conservatives want to give councils the chance to build more social housing, for example. ‘I think it’s localism,’ declared shadow housing minister Grant Shapps at the weekend.

But with schools it is different. Both parties want more independent academies, though Schools Secretary Ed Balls wants them to work more with local authorities while his Tory shadow Michael Gove believes that parents might want to help run his new academies.

In truth, most such schools are likely to come through ‘chains’ of like-minded schools, such as Ark or the Harris Trust, which already run several academies each. Instead of through councils or parent power, many schools are likely to develop as part of national brands.

But this reduction in local council power is coinciding with less national accountability. The government’s flagship literacy and numeracy strategies are to be abandoned (though Ofsted will still inspect for daily lessons in the 3Rs). Labour has ditched national tests for 14-year-olds, while the Tories would get secondary teachers to test and mark primary pupils in place of the national tests at age 11. And while both parties stress the need for more published information, there is a growing hostility to national targets.

In health, an incoming Conservative government would leave decisions on minimum waiting times to individual hospitals. Prime Minister Gordon Brown has recently announced plans for entitlements setting out treatment times for cancer patients and guaranteeing personal tuition to school children.

There were certainly too many targets, and some were clearly counter-productive: although quickly abandoned, targets to reduce school exclusions came to be seen as a cause of poor discipline, and skills targets focused on qualifications rather than what employers really wanted.

But centrally driven programmes, such as the literacy and numeracy strategies, did a lot to counter past failings. They reintroduced spelling, grammar and punctuation to writing lessons; they put times tables back into primary maths; and they used phonics to teach reading. And despite the decision to scrap the national programmes, both the national curriculum and Ofsted inspections mean that such traditional approaches are likely to remain whoever is in power.

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