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Green: Setting Schools Free

Adam Smith Institute Lecture

I want to start this lecture by bring together two political thinkers who may never have been mentioned in the same sentence before; Adam Smith, and Jim Callaghan. Both of them had fascinating things to say about education, which were counter-intuitive in their different ways.

Let me start with Adam Smith out of deference to my hosts, and also to the shade of a very great man. Those who regard him rather simplistically as the proponent of the free market in all areas of life should know that he was, for his time, daringly radical in his view that the state did have an obligation to ensure the education of everyone.

In the Wealth of Nations he wrote

"The most essential parts of education….to read, write and account, can be acquired at so early a period of life, that the greater part even of those who are to be bred to the lowest occupations have time to acquire them before they can be employed in those occupations. For a very small expense the public can facilitate, can encourage, and can even impose upon almost the whole body of the people the necessity of acquiring those most essential parts of education."

And why should the public do this?

"The more they are instructed, the less liable they are to the delusions of enthusiasm and superstition, which, among ignorant nations, frequently occasion the most dreadful disorders. An instructed and intelligent people besides are always more decent and orderly than an ignorant and stupid one. They feel themselves, each individually, more respectable and more capable of seeing through the interested complaints of faction and sedition."

So what we need, to form a civilised society, is an instructed and intelligent people. Who could disagree? And yet think again about the first quote I used. Smith rightly believed that you could teach the essentials, to read, write and count, in the early years. Two and a quarter centuries after he wrote that, as we contemplate an education system in which a quarter of 11-year-olds leave primary school after seven years of compulsory full-time education without an adequate standard in reading, writing, and counting, it is clear that we have taken a wrong turn somewhere.

Which is where Jim Callaghan comes in. His speech at Ruskin College Oxford in October 1976 marked the start of an era of increasing centralisation in education, and for perfectly respectable reasons. It is instructive to see how much of a walled garden education had become. He felt the need say, rather defensively, that "There is nothing wrong with non-educationalists, even a Prime Minister, talking about education again."

When he talked about it, what he said sounds, at least in part, depressingly contemporary. Callaghan detailed

"Complaints from industry that new recruits from the schools sometimes do not have the basic tools to do the job…..There is concern about the standards of numeracy of school leavers….there is the unease felt by parents and others about the new, informal methods of teaching which seem to produce excellent results when they are in well-qualified hands but are more dubious when they are not."

His solution was "a basic curriculum with universal standards", and the need to instil what he called "basic literacy, basic numeracy, the understanding of how to live and work together, respect for others, respect for the individual."

It was this Ruskin speech that set in train the reforms of the 80s and 90s under a Conservative Government, and which set the tone for David Blunkett's Education policy when Labour came to power in 1997. Schools weren't doing the job properly, so outsiders had to do it for them. Many of these reforms were necessary. Given the state of English schools in the 1970s, a National Curriculum, OFSTED, regular testing, publication of performance results, have all helped to raise standards by shining a light into the walled garden and letting parents know what is going on inside the school walls.

But this process of centralisation has now gone much too far. It is my central contention that the tide of centralisation in education policy which Jim Callaghan set off in 1976 is doing more harm than good, and that we need to spend the coming decades setting schools free, and giving more choice to everyone involved in education, from teachers to parents. This is certainly the central thread of Conservative policy-making. The key is to ensure that these new freedoms do not lead to another lapse in basic standards, and to do that we need a combination of simple but effective outside monitoring, and genuine parental choice.

Why is this sea change necessary? Look at the most important facts at every stage of our education system. The improvement seen in primary schools from the early years of the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies have stalled, leaving around a quarter of 11-year-olds unable to read or count at an acceptable level. At GCSE, only 39% achieve C-grade or above in English, Maths, and Science. The gap between GCSE results in inner city schools and schools elsewhere is growing, so there is not even equality in this misery. The old A level system has been destroyed by Curriculum 2000, and the new system has already needed a new committee set up to devise its replacement—a disgrace for which the resignation of an Education Secretary and the head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority barely seems an adequate response.

Meanwhile assaults on teachers quadrupled between 1998 and 2001, truancy is running at the rate of around 50,000 children every school day, and the Government has been putting out 17 pages of advice and guidance to schools each working day.

So I do not seek these extra freedoms purely from ideological convictions. They are necessary because you cannot have excellent schools unless you have well-motivated heads and teachers. And if you do not give those professionals the freedom to decide how best to get their pupils over the hurdles that parents and society as a whole demand that they be able to jump, then you will create a resentful profession that wearily approaches each task in the spirit of 'What does the Minister want this week', rather than 'What can I do for these children.' The teaching profession is perilously close to this position. Teacher vacancies have doubled under this Government. One in three teachers is considering leaving the profession within five years.

Even more importantly, I think if you give parents some choice, and some power, they will demand higher standards. They will make this demand effective, I suspect, by favouring schools which promise firm discipline, traditional and effective teaching methods, respect for authority, and an emphasis on extra-curricular activities such as music, sport, and drama as a route to creating a well-balanced person. And those demands will be as strong in the inner cities as they are in leafy suburbs. This is the right response to the big social divide in Higher Education. Not another intrusive regulator, but better inner city schools that let their pupils aspire to the best.

So let's make 2003 the year when the tide turned. The year when the state admits it doesn't have all the answers. Indeed the year when the state admits that it may be part of the problem, not the solution. Just as Callaghan started a national debate in 1976 we need a new national education debate to answer the question 'How can we make freedom and choice work for our schools?'

I say a national debate because there are signs in its rhetoric, if not in its policies, that even the current Government recognises the limits of centralisation. The Government-approved analysis of the school system is that we have moved from 'uninformed professional judgement'—the pre-Callaghan days, through 'uninformed prescription', then to 'informed prescription' and now to 'informed professional judgement'. This triumph of jargon seeks to disguise the fact that no one involved in the school system has noticed the Government becoming less prescriptive—and of course they haven't.

Ministers would disagree. I suppose they genuinely believe that the concept of 'earned autonomy', which they introduced in the most recent Education Bill, does provide genuine freedom for schools. I believe that earned autonomy is not just an oxymoron—if a Minister can decide if you deserve autonomy then you are not autonomous--but that there is a deeper reason why a Labour Government New or Old cannot allow genuine choice and diversity. This is that for Labour education is not just about learning, but about social engineering. Those who doubt this should study the remarks about the purpose of universities uttered by Ministers from the Prime Minister downwards over the past couple of weeks. David Blunkett used to talk about education 'underpinning social justice within the community'. I believe education is about giving individuals from whatever background they come the opportunity to take power over their own lives, and aspire as high as they wish.

There is a legitimate argument to be had between these points of view. But what is unarguable is that if politicians want education to be a tool helping create the sort of society they want, they cannot allow teachers, parents, or governors to take important decisions. So if the education debate does move, as it should, onto the ground of how to make freedom and diversity work best to raise standards, I am confident that Conservatives will be standing on comfortable intellectual ground. As a Tory myself—apparently a point worth emphasising these days—I think this is a key point. We Tories need to have the intellectual self-confidence to believe that the facts of life are Tory. In education, this is certainly the case.

Armed with this self-belief, we have started on the path of policy-making. Our vision is a school system which has greater freedom in finance, teaching methods, and the curriculum. A system in which the state will continue to pay for the education of the vast majority, as Adam Smith would have approved, but should not be the monopoly provider of schools within the maintained system—as he would also have applauded.

Let me be more specific. Every school in the current state system will have the power to choose to be autonomous, apart from a small number that are failing to meet the basic criteria on standards or governance. This autonomy will give them the choice of managing their own affairs, remaining under the control of their local authority, or joining a federation of other autonomous schools. These autonomous schools would employ their own teachers, have control over their own spending, and decide from where they buy support services such as school transport. The decision to allow schools, by which I mean boards of governors with the head teacher, to choose which route they prefer, will mean that the ballots which so often became exercises in political spite in certain areas when schools were deciding whether to become grant-maintained, will not be part of the process.

But I also want to allow new entrants into the maintained school system, whether voluntary, faith-based, or private. I want a new type of school available to all, free at the point of use, but not run by the state. We will roll this out, starting in the inner cities, where the problems of obtaining an excellent education are too often more difficult than anywhere else. Our scheme of State Scholarships will allow money to follow the child. In areas where sufficient numbers of parents are unhappy with the schools on offer, new providers will be able to meet the demand. So we will at the same time give more power and choice to parents, and allow competition between different types of school within what we now call the state system.

This will mean the abolition of one of the main remaining pieces of old-fashioned pure central planning in this country; the surplus places rule. This rule rests on the assumption that any place at any school is of exactly the same value as any other place at any other school. Every parent knows that this is rubbish, but school admissions authorities are required to behave as though it is true. Parents are promised choice, and are then understandably angry when they find they cannot exercise it. We cannot offer them genuine choice unless good schools can expand as far as their heads think is appropriate, and new schools can set up. This is what a Conservative Government would offer.

We will also give more freedoms to all schools, whatever support structure they choose. We will give more power to heads and teachers to enforce discipline through home-school contracts with parents, and by scrapping the current legalistic, expensive, and bureaucratic system of appeals panels against permanent exclusions of persistently disruptive or violent pupils. We will simplify the exam system, so that pupils do not spend term after term simply preparing for and sitting papers. We will make the QCA independent of Government, so that there is no suspicion of political interference in the level of exam results.

At the same time we will simplify the funding system so that instead of the dozens of different funding streams that schools now have to navigate through, there will be a basic national formula with as few variations as are compatible with fairness. Heads should spend their time planning and managing. Teachers should spend their time teaching. Neither should feel that the working week consists of filling in forms, interrupted by the occasional act of education.

We should be clear that this requires Tories to bite some bullets as well. We cannot trust teachers at the same time as denigrating them, so we should choose the former. We cannot expect every school in the country to teach its children in a way that makes every Conservative feel comfortable, but if we do not want central control under the current dispensation we cannot claim it for ourselves in the future. But the general thrust, of allowing each community much more control over its school, and giving each parent much more choice, is infinitely preferable to central state control. The central Government role is to ensure that what goes on in the school is revealed to parents and potential parents. It is not, absolutely not, to run the school.

What this vision of schooling offers is the possibility of extending choice and excellence far beyond the groups who currently expect it. At the moment if you can pay, or if you can move to the best area, you can obtain an excellent education in this country. What I want to do is extend that opportunity to those who do not have economic clout. Twenty years ago we offered home ownership to millions of people. The next Conservative Government will offer educational excellence to millions more than expect it at present.

And in this vision of schools set free from the current level of control we can see the outline of a new Conservative settlement; the use of non-state instruments, which were once the preserve of the right of the Party, for the purpose of helping the vulnerable, once the terrain of the left of the Party. I know my colleagues are working on similar extensions of choice in the other public services, and this will form a significant part of the ground on which we will stand and fight.

So let the debate start. We have gone as far as we could in reaction to Jim Callaghan's 1976 speech. We now need to start the journey into new territory, where central Government shows some humility in relation to education, and politicians in Whitehall recognise that they are not the fount of all educational wisdom. I am perhaps the first person who aspires to be Education Secretary so that I can exercise less power. It may sound odd, but I am sure it will enhance the long-term health of our schools, and the prospects of future generations of our children.

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