Policy failures should shine a light on education centralisation

Warwick Mansell · 9 February 2021

Are pupils’ education and welfare being damaged more than they could have been, in the wake of the pandemic, because of English policymakers’ modern predilection for centralising control of public services from Whitehall?

The thought occurs as fiascos in education continue to pile up, with the blame often pinned on the door of the Department for Education and particularly its current leader, Gavin Williamson, but with perhaps not enough attention paid to what may be the system’s defining underlining weakness.

A failure of central control runs through recent examples of policy dysfunction including the chaotic pre-Christmas dispute with local authorities and some schools over whether or not to close classrooms because of COVID, difficulties getting laptops to schools and the meal vouchers struggle, while the National Tutoring Programme may be another national controversy waiting to happen.

In December, Williamson threatened legal action to force the London councils of Greenwich and Islington to reverse plans to close schools a few days early with COVID cases surging. Kevin Countney, National Education Union joint general secretary, said Williamson and Boris Johnson should “hang their heads in shame” for not allowing the professional judgment of local authorities and headteachers to prevail.

Events then seemed to have vindicated the councils’ caution, with Johnson being forced to announce the closure of all schools to most pupils after the first day of the new term.

Remarkably, that announcement was so centralised – driven as it was by Number 10 largely without much involvement from most DfE civil servants – that it came as a shock even to officials within Williamson’s department, one of whom told me (£) they learned of it while watching Johnson on television with the rest of the nation.

Laptop failure

The notion of trying to centralise support for schools on Whitehall directives also seems to have been a weakness inherent in the faltering effort to get laptops to hundreds of thousands of disadvantaged pupils.

The government has promised to deliver laptops to 1.3 million pupils and as of early February, had distributed nearly a million. But, almost a year after the first widespread school closures, it will be weeks before that target is reached.

Last month, a report by the Sutton Trust charity found two thirds of senior leaders in state schools were having to source IT equipment for disadvantaged pupils themselves, while they waited for the national scheme.

Schools Week reported leadership teams’ concerns that central DfE statistics had failed to get to grips with real levels of need – a concern echoed by a Bristol primary school co-headteacher I spoke to, who said that as of last April, 85 of its 90 pupils had lacked suitable equipment, but the government’s initial allocation amounted to only 26 machines, later reduced to five. (Hearteningly, local donations came to the rescue.)

Last week’s Public Accounts Committee report on the free school meals voucher scheme makes for staggering reading. The DfE, it concluded, was “unconcerned” about any possibility that its private contractor, Edenred, which had been appointed without a tender to offer food vouchers for free school meals pupils as the first lockdown hit, might be making large profits.

It had not checked on the costs and income associated with the contract given to Edenred until after the scheme had ended, and had extended the contract twice, from £78 million to £425 million, without having sought to renegotiate any of its terms. This was despite the scheme clearly having problems, with schools struggling to register on its website or to reach its telephone helpline.

In a weakness seemingly directly associated with centralisation, the committee also found that the DfE had not done enough to assess how far families had to travel to access supermarkets involved in the scheme, leaving complaints that some parents had difficulty getting to participating stores. The DfE had considered but rejected paying local authorities to make their own arrangements, the report found.

National Tutoring Programme

Finally, another centralised initiative, the National Tutoring Programme, also seems to be running into controversy. This scheme, in which the DfE has pre-vetted 33 tutoring agencies – mainly private companies and charities – to provide catch-up teaching to small groups of disadvantaged pupils, is offered on the basis of a government subsidy.

Schools pay only a quarter of what is billed as the total cost of the tuition, with the government funding the rest, seemingly via the tutoring organisation. But my investigations last week suggested this was in some cases leading to costs of up to £100 an hour for the tuition for taxpayers. The Association of School and College Leaders has questioned whether ongoing subsidies for private tuition are the best use of public funds.

It is certainly possible to wonder if the DfE simply handing some extra funds to schools to spend on tuition, without such a central scheme, might have been a better option.

In an article for Tortoise Media last month, the commentator Chris Cook suggested that education reforms including the academies policy – which sees thousands of school trusts operating through contracts agreed with the Secretary of State for Education – had helped create a DfE which “is often reflexively dismissive of local government”.

The problems of over-centralisation have been discussed widely in relation to other areas of the UK’s COVID response, notably the government not giving enough responsibility to local authorities for reacting to local outbreaks and organising contact tracing, favouring for the latter centrally-agreed contracts with private firms, which often then seem to misfire.

We should also not forget education, however. Perhaps the most important question is not whether Williamson is the best current person for the job of Education Secretary, but whether the organisation he leads was ever in a position to provide the kind of effective support that could best help schools.

Warwick Mansell is a freelance education journalist. He runs the website Education Uncovered.

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