Improving standards in our schools makes reforming the NHS seem easy

Dr Reid might be the new pin-up, but I would argue that Mr Clarke has faced the harder challenge
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Government still lacks a clear and consistent approach to its own role in the provision of public services. The confusion is especially striking as ministers release their five-year plans for schools, hospitals, crime and the rest. Indeed, the plans themselves have a contradictory ring. In most cases they seek to empower the consumer, handing power from the centre to the users of public services. Yet in proclaiming objectives for the next five years the government implies that it is responsible for delivering them and has clear ideas about what form the delivery should take: We will make damned sure the provider delivers what the user wants!

The Government still lacks a clear and consistent approach to its own role in the provision of public services. The confusion is especially striking as ministers release their five-year plans for schools, hospitals, crime and the rest. Indeed, the plans themselves have a contradictory ring. In most cases they seek to empower the consumer, handing power from the centre to the users of public services. Yet in proclaiming objectives for the next five years the government implies that it is responsible for delivering them and has clear ideas about what form the delivery should take: We will make damned sure the provider delivers what the user wants!

The inconsistencies are apparent in a variety of policy areas. The Home Secretary, David Blunkett, acquires more powers to make sure he prevails over local police authorities. The Transport Secretary, Alastair Darling, is stealthily taking back powers for his department at the expense of the regulators, quangos and private companies that are supposedly running the railways.

The Health Secretary, John Reid, is moving in the opposite direction. The largely self-governing foundation hospitals have their own new regulator. Dr Reid can make demands, but the regulator is in a position to tell the Health Secretary that the activities of these hospitals are none of his business. On Thursday the Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, moves on to the same terrain as Dr Reid. As part of his five-year plan he will allow more schools to become self-governing.

Mr Clarke's five-year plan has been the subject of more draining internal discussions than the rest of the plans put together. In Downing Street it is Dr Reid who is the latest pin-up, while posters of Mr Clarke are being taken down from the walls, as far as they were put up in the first place.

From the outset Dr Reid delivered what was required of him by the Prime Minister. He did so, I am told, to such an extent that. in their discussions over his five-year plan, if Dr Reid declared that a prime ministerial aspiration could not be met, Mr Blair tended to accept the verdict. They were travelling along similar lines. On the whole Dr Reid presented him with solutions rather than problems. His judgement was respected.

We will have to see whether Dr Reid implements the policies with the same panache, but in his preparation he has shown considerable political guile: so much so that there is occasional praise for him from the Treasury. This is quite something - straddling the two might empires - especially as the Treasury feels largely excluded from the preparation of the five-year plans.

Mr Clarke has had a rougher time of it. As far as the future of secondary schools is concerned there has been less sense from the Downing Street perspective that they have all been travelling along the same lines. Instead there is some prime ministerial frustration with Mr Clarke and his department, although in the words of one senior government insider: "We got there in the end."

When I spoke to this particular insider he made a wider observation about the formation of these plans: "The process is terrible for the people involved, ridiculously exhausting and frustrating, but it works in terms of the policies that come out at the end of it." This conjures up a flattering image of noble policymakers lying down in darkened rooms, hardly breathing, while the rest of us benefit from the fruits of their labours. But there is something in it. The five-year plans have concentrated the minds of Downing Street, government departments and providers of public services at a time when ministers are more experienced and when the increases in public spending are taking effect.

Seeking to revive schools is an unavoidably exhausting mission. To deploy the fashionable language of the times, the performance of schools depends as much on the consumers as the providers. This is not the case with hospitals. If hospitals are underperforming this is probably because they are badly managed. The patients cannot disrupt a hospital or make a hospital flourish.

In contrast the quality of the pupils can transform the prospects of a school. There is also the related issue of how money for schools is distributed. How much should go directly to head teachers? Should there be a commitment to establish a precise number of well-resourced city academy schools, inevitably meaning less money for other projects? Should local authorities be by-passed altogether? Dr Reid might be the new pin-up, but I would argue that Mr Clarke has faced the harder challenge.

The premise behind the five-year plan for schools is a good one. There is an urgent need to keep the middle classes in the state sector and an equally urgent requirement to improve the schools in poorer areas. Mr Clarke will present some innovative ideas on Thursday that, in some ways, echo the proposals launched last week by Dr Reid. They introduce greater flexibility in the system without causing anarchic chaos.

One of those involved in drawing up the policies described it to me as "freedom within a framework". Successful head teachers will be able to innovate on a larger canvas, breaking down the absurd barriers that prevent successful schools from expanding and from rewarding the best teachers with much higher salaries. One of the aims is to allow pupils from other schools to be taught or have contact with the best teachers from neighbouring schools. There will be a range of measures aimed at encouraging co-operation between schools. The expansion of city academies will be in poorer areas. The scope to select a few of the pupils is not a return to grammar schools, but should ensure a genuinely mixed intake. All of this is aimed at lifting standards within the state system and may well do so.

I say "may" on the ground that it is not clear where the responsibility will ultimately lie for ensuring that standards are lifted across the country. This becomes a very big question when a government takes away power from itself and locally elected councils, as Mr Blunkett has discovered in his attempts to tackle inefficiencies in the police force.

Missing from New Labour's theory of the state is a robust institutional framework for the division between the state as purchaser and provider of public services. On setting out along this path in the mid-1980s, the then education secretary Kenneth Baker used the metaphor of the wheel. When he announced that some schools would opt out from local authority control, Mr Baker declared that the Department of Education was at the hub and the schools at the rim. But there were no spokes then and there are no spokes now, as the government prepares to hand over powers to many more schools. The gap left by the decline of local democracy has yet to be filled.

When Mr Clarke announces his proposals on Thursday there will be much to praise, but the question of who governs education in Britain will be even harder to answer. The hub knows what it wants, but the rest of the wheel might have other ideas.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

Comments