Over-centralisation of power a recurring theme in education policymaking

Warwick Mansell · 18 November 2021

The recent scandals on aspects of political life in Westminster echo much of what he has discovered about how education policy is being implemented and now works, says education journalist Warwick Mansell.

Is there any surprise at the number of alleged sleaze stories which have piled up around this government over the past couple of weeks?

As someone who has investigated developments in one area of English domestic policy, which has been subject to extensive intervention by ministers in recent years, the only shock must be that the press pack has taken so long to highlight such stories in earnest.

Of course, the national spotlight has been trained on aspects of political life in Westminster, such as second jobs for MPs since the botched attempt by the Prime Minister to protect the Conservative MP Owen Paterson from suspension from Parliament for alleged lobbying.

However, wider concerns that England’s political set-up lacks the checks and balances which might prevent misuses of power seem to echo, at a macro level, what I see in micro in relation to education policymaking.

The influence of “expert groups”

One recurring theme, in reporting schools reform in England in recent years, has been just how influential small groups of people can be, both in the shaping of policy at a national level, and in developments within individual institutions.

Department for Education ministers have tended to farm out detailed policy development to “expert groups”. These seem not to be subject to any formal appointments process. They tend to be populated by ideological sympathisers of this government’s aims for education, with several individuals serving on multiple groups and entire swathes of what in other times would be seen as key constituencies for policymaking – notably trade unions, universities, local authorities and even parents and pupils – barely represented.

For example, in recent years the government has set up four groups to look at reform of teacher education and training. As is to be set out in a forthcoming book I am co-authoring*, I found that, of the 34 places on such groups, five individuals took up almost half of the places (16) between them.

One of those people has served in at least 11 advisory roles in recent years, either for the Department for Education itself or for publicly-funded organisations linked to it, such as Ofsted and Ofqual.

Does the country benefit from the concentration of power around ministers through such reliance on a few carefully-selected individuals?

Well, questions surely need asking, as they should about how the DfE has chosen, as its favoured model for the control of schools, a system whereby, again, a few people subject to no open or democratic appointments process can wield controlling influence.

The power of trust members

As written here previously, in trusts running academies – which now constitute 45 per cent of state-funded schools in England – ultimate power rests with a small number of trust “members”.

Usually only up to five in number, these are unelected and can be friends and even relations. Their usual powers are to amend the trust’s constitution and to appoint and dismiss its board members – unilaterally and without any democratic checks and balances.

And, under the government’s structure for overseeing and administering such a system, which is carried out via civil servants called Regional Schools Commissioners, decisions on which trusts get to run state-funded schools in the first place are taken behind closed doors. What minimal transparency there is – super-brief minutes of meetings – has been wrested out of the government by campaigners and journalists.

Concentration of power

But perhaps the development that has really summed up matters, in my 21 years now covering the academies system, has been the seeming reluctance by one particular academy trust to follow government guidance on how governing bodies should be set up.

This seemed especially remarkable as this trust was set up by, and continues to be overseen by, someone who served as academies minister, during which time he wrote the foreword to an annual handbook for the sector, setting out how governance should operate.

This former minister, the Conservative peer and donor Lord Nash, is now the lead non-executive director for the entire government. His responsibilities include to…”improve governance across Whitehall”.

There is no suggestion that Lord Nash himself is connected to the current Westminster furore. But the overall state of checks and balances in England, with power too concentrated around the political centre, means it is no surprise that scandals will continue to emerge.

The entire English policymaking state needs root-and-branch reform, to protect the public from self-interested actions by over-powerful political actors.

Will anyone ever come forward to perform such a task?

Warwick Mansell is a freelance journalist, who founded and writes for the investigative website Education Uncovered.

The New Political Economy of Teacher Education: the Enterprise Narrative and the Shadow State, by Viv Ellis, Lauren Gatti and Warwick Mansell, is to be published by Policy Press.

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