Essay: First steps in making schools independent
Robert Skidelsky
Times Literary Supplement | Friday, April 11, 1997

The character of an educational system can most readily be understood by discovering who controls it. In 1979, the answer was reasonably clear. To use today's fashionable term, there were five main educational stakeholders: local authorities, teachers' unions, colleges of education, examination boards and the central government. Of these, the most import-ant were the local authorities. They were the legal owners of the institutions in which most British pupils were educated between the ages of five and eighteen (and beyond, if they were students at polytechnics).
They were responsible for ensuring an adequate supply of places, allocating budgets and planning overall educational provision in "their" areas. Teachers' unions largely determined the salary structure and conditions of teachers nationally. Colleges of education, whose duty it was to train and accredit teachers, determined how pupils were taught, and university-based examination boards determined what they were taught, especially at secondary level. Central government exercised ultimate control through the power of the block grant to local authorities. Tony Crosland had used this to devastating effect in the 1960s to force the reorganization of LEA secondary schools on comprehensive (that is, non-selective) lines. But mostly the central government paid up without asking too many questions. Standing apart from State education were the private, fee-paying schools, and the universities. The latter were independent corporations dependent on state funding.
Eighteen years later, the landscape is profoundly altered. The main change has been in the vastly increased powers and activism of central government. The tentacles of the Department for Education and Employment and its quangos now reach into every corner of education. The powers of the purse and of legislation have been aggressively used to subordinate all educational institutions, except the private schools, to the national needs, as defined by the Secretary of State. The local authorities, teachers' unions, colleges of education, examination boards, even the universities have been turned into - somewhat rebellious - agents of the government's will. This is not the whole story, though. Two minor stakeholders, schools and parents, have been created by the legislative reforms since 1979. Broadly speaking, the Secretary of State has taken unprecedented powers to reshape the content and structure of education, while allowing schools a limited autonomy to compete for parental custom.
Why did a Conservative government, committed in general to privatization and deregulation, "nationalize" public education? The paradox is easily explained: Conservatives believed that the education of the young had fallen into the hands of their political enemies and needed to be recaptured from them.
Historically, the impulse for educational reform has come from the Left of politics, which has seen education as a crucial mechanism for breaking down privilege and achieving greater social equality. Conservative governments have been prepared to legislate reform - as in 1902 and 1944 - when national efficiency or social pressure demanded it, but improvement in State education was not a Conservative passion. The educational roots of the Conservative Party are in the fee-paying sector, and the Party's first educational concern has been to protect its independence, if necessary with public money. The Assisted Places Scheme lies squarely in this Conservative tradition.
The Conservative detachment from State education left Conservative governments dependent on the educational blueprints of the Left, and particularly on the Left's social-class explanation of educational failure. This is why Conservatives acquiesced in the Labour-driven comprehensive-school revolution of the 1960s and 70s - a revolution accomplished by financial leverage, without legislation. As a quid pro quo for Labour leaving the private sector alone, the Conservative leadership, from a mixture of guilt, inattention and sheer remoteness from State education, nodded through the destruction of the grammar schools. In the critical period, they failed to develop and articulate any alternative to the Left's model of universal comprehensive education as the solvent of Britain's class divisions. But the comprehensive-school revolution, in the end, proved to be one revolution too far. Consciously or unconsciously, the main aim of Conservative education policy since 1979 has been to undo its consequences. But, until recently, it has not been clear what they proposed to put in its place; and even now it is not entirely clear.
The platform for the Conservative counter-attack was national concern about falling educational standards, first publicly voiced by the Labour Prime Minister, James Callaghan, in a speech at Ruskin College, Oxford, in 1976. The consensus position which emerged in the 1980s was that British educational standards were deplorably low, particularly for the "long tail" of working-class under-achievers, and by comparison with other countries (notably in mathematics). The final end of imperial illusions and inflationary demand-management brought the realization that Britain's future prosperity depended entirely on the skills of its population. The language of education became unequivocally utilitarian: schooling was for skilling, not happiness or culture. For the first time, the Conservatives were in a position to turn the charge that it was privilege for the few which explained the low standards of the many. It was Labour's education policy which had been "in power" since the 1960s, and it had "failed the nation".
The Conservative critique concentrated on both the content and structure of State education. Conservative publicists assailed the left-wing "culture" emanating from colleges of education. Inspired by faulty theories of learning, antipathy to bourgeois values and plain muddle, this culture had rejected the traditional view of education as an initiation into knowledge and a training in rigour. In its place, it erected a child-centred approach based on the deconstruction of subjects and informal teaching methods. As a result - so Conservatives claimed - working-class children had been systematically deprived of the essential tools of adult competence: literacy and numeracy, vocational skills, good work habits. But Conservatives also came to believe that the replacement of grammar and secondary modern schools, with their academic and vocational traditions, by the philosophically vacuous comprehensive had facilitated the "capture" of education by the producers of this faulty culture via the machinery of local-authority planning.
Conservative educational reforms have combined direct assaults on the child-centred "culture" with indirect attempts to weaken it by creating a more varied structure of autonomous schools freer to respond to the common-sense, more traditional values of parents and employers. In the first category come the top-down standards-raising measures - the National Curriculum with its age-related attainment targets, the associated National Assessment system, an independent inspectorate (OFSTED) and increasingly stringent controls over the content of teacher training. In the second category come measures designed to liberate schools and parents from local-authority planning systems. School governing bodies, augmented by business and parent representatives, have been given control over their own budgets; parents have been given the right to choose between different schools and a greater variety of schools - which includes City Technology Colleges, grant-maintained schools and specialist schools - to choose from; and State money now follows the pupil to the school rather than being allocated by LEAs. The effect has dislodged Education Colleges and LEAs from the commanding heights of state education. Control has been transferred upwards to central government and its quangos, and downwards to schools and parents.
The Opposition parties have not found it easy to respond to this somewhat confusing mixture of centralization and deregulation. For a long time, and despite Callaghan in 1976, they blamed educational failure on Thatcherite cuts in the national education budget - the Liberal Democrats have long urged higher taxes to "fund education properly" - and resisted all the Conservative reforms on principle. In the end, while continuing to attack the "underfunding" of State education, the Labour Party accepted all the government's "top down" reforms (saying it would have done them better), but rejected most of the modifications in school structure, and has promised to reinstate the planning role of local authorities. It has also promised to phase out the Assisted Places Scheme for private schools. Central planning of output, combined with local planning of supply, sums up New Labour's policy. The pell-mell expansion of higher education, the upgrading of polytechnics into universities, the centralization of higher education funding, and its use to impose national priorities in teaching and research on the universities - all this has commanded broad all-party support.
Where do we go from here? The interlinked questions of control and structure are far from being settled, and finance is likely to become an increasing problem at all levels. The Conservatives have had a clear sight of their "enemies", but philosophically they have been exceedingly muddled - an affliction which soon overcomes anyone who tries to think seriously about education. The dual strategy of centralizing control over content and output while deregulating supply becomes, beyond a point, self-contradictory. These are two alternative mechanisms for raising standards, relying on alternative patterns of incentives: the one rooted in the principles of the command economy, the other in those of the market system. But the notion of a command system in a free society is a nonsense. Such a system may be established on paper. But what it does is to set up a game in which all players, including the government, have an incentive to cheat. Speci-fically, a central testing agency under government control is strategically placed to readjust standards so as to show that they are continually rising, with no independent check. This is already happening.
The alternative is to leave quality control to independent examination boards, relying on competition between schools for pupils and budgets to drive up standards. The Conservatives have been nibbling away at this programme, but they are far from having digested it. Nevertheless, in the dying days of John Major's government, some sort of Conservative vision is at last emerging. The grant-maintained schools are set to become the nucleus of a new generation of grammar schools. Local-authority comprehensives will be encouraged to develop centres of excellence in technology, art, music, sport and so on, which will act as magnets for appropriately motivated and talented pupils. In this way, the monolithic structure of comprehensive education will be broken up.
In education, the Labour Party remains a planning party. It argues that Conservative policy, by creating a two-tier structure of schools, one for the able, the other for the less able, consigns at least a substantial minority of children, particularly in inner cities, to permanently poor education. The Labour Party believes that the standards of all pupils must be raised simultaneously, and that comprehensive (non-selective) schools, within which pupils are grouped by ability, provide the best framework for achieving this. A Labour government will lay down and enforce national targets and restore LEAs' planning functions. But it is not clear how the school and parental freedoms established by the Conservatives would fit into this model. The fuzzy communitarian language in which Labour cloaks its educational project conceals potentially serious conflicts, between central government and strengthened local authorities and between local authorities and schools grown accustomed to autonomy.
The future direction of educational change will probably be determined as much by financial as by educational or political considerations. There is much evidence to suggest that the demand for education rises faster than the national income. If education is wholly financed by the taxpayer, the government will need to increase its spending on education faster than the national income, if it is to follow the preferences of parents. But given the overall tax constraint, it will find it very difficult to do this, unless other components of public spending (such as the social security budget) can be reduced. Since such cuts are notoriously hard to achieve, a publicly financed education service will suffer from a permanent and growing "crisis of underfunding".
It is already clear that university students will be made to pay part of the costs of their university education, in order to make room for more State spending on primary schools. It requires no great acumen to foresee that, over time, the practice of co-payment will spread to schooling as well; it has already started informally, with parents making voluntary contributions to school budgets. Since the State's leverage over education stems largely from the power of the purse, any weakening of its financial involvement will automatically reduce its control, relative to that of private purchasers. From this perspective, the Conservative reforms can be seen as a transitional stage towards a more independent system of schools, colleges and universities. When this transition is completed, the State's role will be that of a secondary purchaser of places in a regulated national system of independent schools and institutions. The present "education debate" will then seem merely quaint.