Section 12. The Role of Government
Finally, considerations were given to role of Government, central and local, in orchestrating educational provision – its duties and its limitations in ensuring adequate provision, equitable funding, high standards, progression routes and accountability of the system.
- The current system in England has become over-centralised, is insufficiently linked to local and regional needs, and does not trust its professionals enough.
- A single Government department is needed for a coherent lifelong learning system.
- All phases of education are burdened by increasing levels of accountability.
As it once was
The 1944 Education Act made did not specify the content of the curriculum or the mode of teaching (except for the statutory requirement to teach religious education). Those were professional matters. As the Nuffield Review (p.24) points out, when Mr Callaghan, as Prime Minister, made a major speech on education in 1976, he was reprimanded through his political adviser for having spoken without prior approval of the Chief Inspector of Schools. However, such hands-off approach could not be sustained given the public investment in education.
As it now is
We have come a long way since then as successive governments have seen the need for ever more interventions in a system which, at every level, they were funding. The most significant development was the creation of a National Curriculum from 5 to 16 in the 1988 Education Reform Act. But that increased intervention was intensified in many ways – for example:
- enabling schools to opt out of local authority control;
- making funding ‘from cradle to grave’ depend on achieving government set targets;
- selecting performance indicators;
- specifying what is and what is not necessary to learn at different ages;
- even dictating the way in which reading should be taught in primary schools (CPR p.35/6);
- the tight controls from the centre through detailed regulation (CPR p.462)
The centralisation is often exercised, as the Reviews point out, through arms length steering mechanisms such as targets and performance tables which are the hall-marks of the ‘New Public Management (NR p.38) – for schools the QCA then QCDA (now abolished), and for post-16 further education and apprenticeships the Learning and Skills Council (now abolished).
It is the shared view of the Reviews that this increased centralisation has gone too far and has to be challenged. As IFLL insists, ‘the current system in England has become over-centralised and insufficiently linked to local and regional needs and (p.54) does not trust its professionals enough (It is not helped by a ‘whirligig’ of government ministers)’.
As it should be
The Reviews, despite their independence from each other, reach similar conclusions about how a more decentralised system should work.
First, there must be a broad national framework within which there is assured adequate resources, equity in funding and continuity and progression in learning ‘from cradle to grave’.
To that end, IFLL (p.215) argues strongly for ‘a single government department in promoting lifelong learning, targeting support and ensuring coherence and collaboration’.
Second, however, within that national framework there is a need to develop:
- what Nuffield Review calls ‘devolved social partnerships’ where there is a ‘new balance between national, regional and local governance; or
- what IFLL (p.4) refers to as a revival of local responsibility … with (p.196) ‘new forms of local control’.
That ‘devolved social partnership’ would encompass local employer networks, clusters of schools and colleges, youth service, voluntary bodies, parent representatives, and an IAG service which embraces schools, colleges and adult education. Regional representation is clearly essential since educational aims and provision cannot be disconnected from the wider regional needs and opportunities.
However, the examples of ‘devolved social partnerships’ which are available do not generally include primary schools at one end and adult education at the other.
All this requires more local democratic agencies, providing infrastructures with links, say, between education, health and social services. At the same time, as the Nuffield Report argues, though the LAs may be crucial in bringing such partnerships into being, they themselves might not be centres of the partnerships themselves. They are often too large to provide that local democratic involvement and responsibility.
Accountability of the system
At every level or phase, there are contentious arguments about the ‘effectiveness’ of educational provision and about standards. There is much to learn from the different ways in which this question was tackled in the respective Reviews.
The Nuffield Review (p.51) regarding 14-19 concluded ‘poor rates of participation, high rates of attrition and low levels of attainment compared with our European neighbours’, reflected in the rather large number in the NEET category. Furthermore, the Review points to continuing divide in attainment between socially advantaged and disadvantaged groups.
The Primary Review (p.334 sq) noted the rise in ‘standards’ as these have been measured in tests of mathematics and science, but less so in reading. It pointed out, however, both the ambiguity in the word ‘standard’ and the narrowness of the curriculum measured.
IFLL (ch.2), though warning against accountability in terms of measured learning outcomes (adult learning is particularly difficult to measure), argues that conclusions can be reached on
- the imbalance of opportunity and support for learning across the life course,
- the failure to recognise the increasingly diverse transitions into and from employment,
- the accumulation of inequalities over a lifetime,
- the poor preparation for a highly skilled economy, and
- the sheer difficulty in understanding the very complex system.
Inevitably, at the heart of arguments about the effectiveness of the system is the concept of ‘standard’. Are standards going up or down? How does the system compare with other national systems in terms of standards reached?
However, as Nuffield and Primary Reviews note, standards cannot be identified with ‘targets’ set by Government. Deeper questions need to be asked about the aims of education, reflected in a wider vision of learning. Otherwise, standards are defined much too narrowly, and the system is judged on targets which ill reflect the values which the Reviews argue for.
The limits of Accountability
It is clear that all phases of education are burdened by increasing levels of accountability. That accountability is determined by Government agenda, not by educational aims which local providers – schools, colleges, adult education and parents see to be important. All Reviews point to the limits of Government in shaping what should be learnt and how it should be learnt. The Primary and Nuffield Reviews (ch.16 and p.81 respectively) are critical of the use of tests (especially SATs) as instruments for holding the system or individual providers accountable. As argued in Section 8, assessment for accountability should be separated from assessment for learning. Less interference in the minutiae is necessary. Thus, IFLL (p.55) argues that accountability, if it takes the wrong form
stifles innovation, destroys trust and increases costs. We need a better balance between accountability and earned autonomy. Professionals in all walks of lifelong learning need their trust in the system raised, along with the system’s trust in them’.
What would seem to be necessary is the collection of evidence which enables government, parents, employers and the community to make a judgement about the extent to which the different parts of the system enable the aims of education (e.g. as set out in Section 2) to be realised. That requires the posing of the right questions, concerning, for example:
- participation trends in post 16 and in adult education (e.g. by age, gender, ethnicity);
- the degree of inclusiveness within the system;
- sense of ‘well-being’ (NR p.59/60; MCWB)
- meeting the skills required by the economy;
- meeting needs of the disadvantaged in society (IFLL, p.52, asks how the system perform when seen from the perspective of a disabled adult, a cared-for child or an ex-prisoner);
- raising the levels of core and functional skills in numeracy and literacy;
- enabling progression through the system to further education, training and employment;
- creating a more cohesive and responsible citizenry.
National data is, of course, important – in this all Reviews are agreed. But, as both Primary and Nuffield Reviews point out (p.332 sq. and p.63 respectively), such data about the system as a whole can be obtained on a light sampling basis along the lines pioneered by the Assessment of Performance Unit (APU) without that interfering with the day-to-day learning programmes of schools. The system of accountability should not have the direct impact on teaching and learning (‘teaching to the test’) which currently the system has (CPR p.313 sq.; NR p.62, 67).
An over centralised system at every level, greater devolvement of responsibility to local ‘social partnerships’, the role of local authorities in bringing this about – all that is agreed. But the shape of such partnerships – their funding, organisation, local accountability, and limitations within a national framework – is a question bequeathed by the Reviews for others to answer.
At the same time, the system should be accountable at the different levels of local authority, regional planning, partnership (or consortium) and individual provider – accountable both to national needs and to the aims and values endorsed by the local learning systems or consortia.