Education: It only takes one to quango: The new agency for opted-out schools just bolsters the power of John Patten. Hardly democratic, says Judith Judd

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The Government, quietly but devastatingly, is transforming the way schools and colleges are run. Quangos, accountable only to the Secretary of State for Education, are supplanting democratically elected local authorities whose role in education goes back almost half a century.

Education takes the largest slice of council budgets and its fortunes symbolise the decline of local democracy. Four years ago, local authorities supervised 24,000 schools, several hundred further education colleges and 30 polytechnics. Now funds for colleges and universities, including all former polytechnics, are channelled through quangos.

This week a new quango for schools that have opted out of local authority control has started work. The Government says that eventually most schools will come under its aegis. A parliamentary answer revealed last month that more than half the Department for Education's pounds 10bn budget is already spent by unaccountable quangos. When the opted-out schools agency is in place the proportion will rise dramatically, as it will dispense pounds 2bn a year.

Unlike local authorities, these quangos will not be answerable to the public. Take the case of Kent, traditionally a Conservative county, where 63 out of 126 secondary schools have chosen to opt out of council control. It is ruled by an alliance of 27 Liberal Democrats and 30 Labour councillors who can be voted out of power in May. Were they to be accused of corruption, the Audit Commission would move in, as it did over Westminster Council's housing policy.

From April, Kent is required to manage its schools jointly with the new Funding Agency for Schools. When the proportion of Kent pupils in opted-out schools reaches 75 per cent, the agency will take over altogether. Elections and accountability to voters will be swept away. Unlike the councillors, the 12 Funding Agency members have not been elected. They are appointed by John Patten, the Education Secretary, and an overwhelming majority support Conservative policy on opting out.

The Funding Agency's chairman, Sir Christopher Benson, is also chairman of Sun Alliance, which has given more than pounds 280,000 to Conservative Party funds since 1988. No independent body can be called in to scrutinise the agency's members. Their meetings are not public and if they refuse to obey Mr Patten he can sack them.

Once this agency is operating alongside existing quangos for further education, universities and curriculum and testing, almost the entire education service - the biggest slice of local authority budgets - will have been removed from local democratic control.

It is a constitutional revolution - as if the transfer of power from the monarchy to Parliament had been reversed. Mr Patten argues that there is democratic control through himself, an elected politician who is accountable to Parliament. But there is a difference between vesting power in one man, a member of a party that has been in power for 15 years, and dispersing it through more than 100 local authorities. Local councillors may have been imperfect but at least they came in various political complexions.

There is a change, too, in the nature of the quangos through which the Government now exercises its power. For the past 50 years, advisory bodies have been set up as buffers between ministers and schools to prevent the Government interference that blights the new quangos.

When the Central Advisory Council for Education was set up after the Second World War, its members were told by the then permanent secretary at the Ministry for Education, John Maud, that their role was 'to die in the last ditch if the politicians tried to get their hands on education'. In the Eighties the University Grants Committee was prepared to take on the Government in a way that would be unthinkable for its successor.

These earlier quangos differed from their Nineties equivalents in that most of their members were picked for their knowledge of education rather than their political views. Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach, who was the head of Margaret Thatcher's Downing Street policy unit from 1985-90, became chairman of the Schools Examinations and Assessment Council from 1991-93; he would never have been shortlisted for the chairmanship of the former University Grants Committee - he would have been considered too partisan.

Quangos under both Conservative and Labour governments have always had their placemen, but the wholesale packing of bodies with government supporters is new. There is not one local authority head on the Funding Agency, although it is supposed to oversee both local authority and opted-out schools.

The agency will decide how much money each school has to spend. Other education quangos decide at what age children learn their tables, whether they are tested by multiple-choice questions or essays, and how many students study English rather than physics.

Whatever a quango's political bent, its members are too remote to settle the disputes that trouble parents, who will find there is no one between the school and the Education Secretary to whom they can turn. Who will deal with complaints that a child has been unjustly excluded from Little Bogginton primary school? Who will determine whether an opted- out school's decision to refuse a child admission is fair? Will 12 members of the remote Funding Agency step in? It is inconceivable.

The role of the quango bolsters the power of the Education Secretary, who can either ensure that its members are biddable or simply overturn their advice. They secure ministers' control over small details of the curriculum. Kenneth Clarke, when he was Education Secretary, decreed that school history should end in 1960, then changed his mind and opted for 1970; John Patten said recently that he preferred 1832. It is not clear whether he was joking, but the concentration of power in the hands of ministers through secretive quangos is no laughing matter, whichever party is in power.

John Maud gave his advice about keeping politicians out of education in the aftermath of war, when memories of Hitler's manipulation of society were fresh. There has, of course, been no Nazi-style takeover of education - but the whiff of totalitarianism is unmistakable.

(Photograph omitted)