It is difficult to sum up a piece of legislation which contains so many issues. Ministers have repeatedly referred to four principles which underlie the legislation. One is specific to education relating to good student behaviour and discipline through improving the quality of teaching.
In terms of the Parliamentary debate this means giving additional disciplinary powers to teachers and lecturers. The other three appear across the Coalition Government’s approach to public services, namely sharpened accountability; the freeing up of, and giving more flexibility to, professionals to do their jobs; and the fairer use of resources.
Whether these four principles are the best place to start in developing an education strategy is a debate that is beyond the scope of this blog except to note that the centrality of the Labour administration’s ‘user focus’ is not present.
However, with four principles, it is perhaps not surprising that there are so many issues in the Act although the complexity of the legislation is increased by the decision to amend earlier legislation rather than to consolidate much amended legislation. This is seen in, for example, the admissions legislation.
The publication on the DfE website of what are called Keeling schedules (which show what the amended legislation will look like) for some provisions is helpful but not an adequate substitute for those who have to implement the new legislation.
Ministers have spoken about what they want the education system to achieve (‘a world class system’) and how it will be measured, which has usually been accompanied by a sprinkling of OECD statistics.
They have been less forthright in terms of a vision as to how it will be achieved from the four principles. Admittedly, this has been difficult because the two most significant changes to the school system in the last year were not directly related to the contents of the Bill. These are the much higher level of conversion to academy status of local authority maintained schools than the Government had initially planned, and the reductions in local government expenditure and, consequently, of support services for schools.
With regard to the local authority role, Minsters repeatedly wanted to “free local authorities, led by directors of children’s services, to focus on championing the interests of parents and children who most need support”. The Labour administration’s 2005 White Paper Higher Standards, Better Schools for All was frequently quoted in aid by Ministers.
The parliamentary debate provided little space to consider what additional powers local government would need to fulfil this role successfully; the implications for schools which have not converted, especially in areas where large numbers have not done so; and whether local government has the resources, and capacity and competence among its elected members and senior officers, to do the job.
One consequence of the Act is the significant accretion of powers to the Secretary of State. This is seen in the abolition of five public bodies, four of which have a sizeable staffing complement, and the creation of three executive agencies, the Teaching Agency, the Education Funding Agency and the Standards and Testing Agency. And some new functions that the Secretary of State is taking on will handles within the DfE and not by an executive agency such as curriculum development and parental complaints.
The DfE News on the Act states that this is to make the Secretary of State directly accountable to Parliament for important functions. It is said that the current Secretary of State believes that he should be directly accountable to Parliament when a decision is taken in his name to bar a teacher from teaching on disciplinary grounds.
The track record of Ministers in other Government departments at managing large executive agencies working in high profile fields is not great; hopefully, the DfE has learnt from these well-recorded problems. It is to be hoped also that both the Secretary of State and Parliament will find the time to allow direct accountability to happen. The Secretary of State did not find the time to vote in the divisions on the final stage of the Education Bill on 14 November.
Vision or no vision, the Act does feel like unfinished business. The Act coupled with Academy conversions and reduced resourcing from local government for school support and out of school educational services increases the likelihood of a radically new school system emerging with new models of delivering school and pupil support. Legislation to support these changes will follow in the wake of these new models, helping to cement the new system together whatever it might look like.
Perhaps, as ever, achieving change and improvement across a local area will depend on the collective vision, and the leadership, management and professional skills, of those working and living in the locality.
Collections of independent schools are not as effective at achieving change as an inter-dependent school system working towards common goals. Legislation must be a handmaiden to the achievement of educational change and not its master. Given the eclectic nature of the Education Act 2011, it is too early to say anything about the medium to long-term effect of the new legislation on these important processes.