Liberation or chaos?

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2015 to 2020 looks set to make a phase of change in education that will be more sweeping than any since the Butler Act of 1944. That Act fundamentally transformed universal education and placed local authorities at the heart of its provision. Later transformations have had an impact on the structures, such as the introduction of comprehensive education, or processes, such as the implementation of the national curriculum. The reforms of the next few years look set to significantly alter both the structures and processes of education in England and Wales.

The key structural change will be the movement of all schools to academy status. A White Paper looks set to come before parliament that will make that transition universal and non-negotiable. A recent TES report (Jan 2016) suggested that ‘ministers are clear enough about their intentions to feel able to skip the Green Paper consultative stage’. This suggests that the ministers concerned are willing to ignore the fact that consultation is a two-way process. They may feel confident in their intentions but are others?

What impact will that reform have on local authorities? Will they be thrown into chaos, left with accountability but denied actual authority? Or will they be liberated to become service providers and guardians of quality assurance, especially for the most vulnerable in the education system? Whichever direction they take it will have to be on the basis of less money. The same TES report noted that the Chancellor, George Osborne, has stated that the ‘schools revolution’ will see local authority education funding cut by £600 million come 2020.

The key changes in process will relate to the curriculum and how it is assessed. As primary schools are currently discovering learning without levels can be a liberating or chaotic experience. For those with a clear sense of what they want for their students, and the confidence to carry it out, the changes are liberating. For those who would prefer the certainties of an external authority telling the school how these things should be done, the experience seems chaotic. This comes against the background of key stage two national standards being opaque at present, leading to considerable anxiety about how attainment will be judged and how that will reflect on the school.

Schools have never the masters of their own destiny in a wider sense. As public bodies their context is largely determined by forces within their influence but not always in their control. However, they have been able to express themselves with a degree of coherence as corporate bodies, such as within a local authority, professional association or diocese. Those corporate bodies are being diminished or even eradicated but that doesn’t mean that the education system will be one of atomised units of provision. New corporate bodies are sure to emerge, and are already in the form of academy chains.

The key feature is what perspective practitioners take of these changes. Is this liberating creativity or chaotic destruction?

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