Do we need a Department for Education and Skills?

When the Conservatives took office in 1979 we had an instruction from Prime Minister Thatcher that we, at the Department of Education, as it was then known, should issue no more that one Circular (to educational establishments) per year. I was the Special Advisor to the Secretary of State, having formulated much of the education policy of the previous years in Opposition. We pursued such policies as the Assisted Places Scheme, Local Management of Schools, and latterly, Grant Maintained Schools.

Even in those days, however, it seemed to me that the Department of Education in London was attempting to control in detail the day to day running of schools. For example, if a local education authority wanted to close, open or expand a school, permission had to be given by the Secretary of State. In practice, of course, the civil servants compiled the case for and against approval. In practice also, I personally obtained greater information where necessary at times visiting the school itself. Usually, but not always, the Secretary of State confirmed the approval or rejection given to him. It seemed to me then that: who were we, in remote London, to determine what was best for a school we had never even heard of? For that matter, was the local authority best placed to pronounce life or death over a school? Surely it should be the school itself expressed by parents, staff and governors to have the dominant say, or to use a term, it should be up to the market.

Well, of course, in comparison to the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) today, we of 20 years ago exercised a light touch. Today circulars and other papers pour out of the DfES at several a week. Today, the DfES tells schools what to teach, how to teach, what ‘targets’ to achieve, what to spend, what not to spend, and so on. I always opposed the introduction of the National Curriculum, even when the Tories introduced it. I could see what was coming: almost complete central ministerial control.

The last few years have been disastrous for schools. Any improvements in some areas have been in spite of government interference not because of it. You only have to look at the independent schools to see how they operate very well, teach to a high standard, mostly get excellent results, and all without the DfES, nor a Local Education Authority, breathing down their neck. In short, the state maintained schools catering for 93% of school children would greatly benefit and achieve more if they had the freedom to manage as enjoyed by the independent schools which cater for the other 7% of children. But could this be done?

Well yes it could, and rather more easily than those who have a vested interest in the present system might suppose. The Grant Maintained policy of the late 1980s and up to 1997 (when Labour scrapped it) showed us the way. Those schools which chose to become Grant Maintained prospered in almost every way, but most importantly in the quality of education. They also demonstrated, to the delight of the Treasury, greater effectiveness and efficiency with the money allocated to them. The policy was to allow the number of Grant Maintained schools to grow as and when schools wanted to join. By 1997 there were a fair number, but most schools were directly maintained, and then Labour scrapped the Grant Maintained ones anyway.

The next government should establish a very clear, unambiguous funding policy for schools, based upon so much money per pupil per year, varied according to the age of the child, with extra for proven special needs. The schools would be paid the equivalent of school fees by the government, based upon the number of pupils at the school. As with the Grant Maintained system, the best way of doing this is through a funding agency operating within tightly drawn rules.

All maintained schools would then have the freedom to manage and freedom to educate within the allocated budget. They would not have, and would not need, control from the local authority, nor from the Department. They might choose to buy some services from the local authority (transport, special needs assessment, grounds maintenance), but that would be up to them, and out of their budget.

All the Circulars, instructions, regulations, targets and the rest of the present paraphernalia from the DfES would stop. OFSTED, the schools’ inspectors, would continue, but would inspect along the lines now applied to the independent schools.

Parliament would, as always, vote each year the money allocated to schools; the Treasury would pay it to the Funding Agency; the Funding Agency would pay it directly to the schools. No job left for a DfES? That’s right, we do not need the DfES, we do not need a Secretary of State for Education, and, as the saying goes, if it is not necessary to have a Department for Education and Skills, it is necessary not to have a Department for Education and Skills.

How would this be achieved? Clearly it depends upon, and stems from, the schools policy outlined about. An incoming government would initially retain the DfES and the Secretary of State to put through the necessary legislation to create ‘Grant Maintained for all’. Slowly, after probably two years, the DfES would dwindle in size as its work on funding was taken over by the Treasury and the Funding Agency, and the rest of the work would be done not at a bureaucratic level but by the teachers in schools themselves. So schools policy implemented first; wind down and out for the DfES to follow.

Mrs Thatcher may have decreed only one Circular per year; let us decree not even one.