“The one thing that checks central government is local government,” says historian, but the academies programme removes local authority buffer between schools and the centre

Janet Downs's picture
Sir Simon Jenkins, interviewed in last week’s Times* said it was essential that politicians had a firm grasp of history.  “Politics is prejudice tempered by history,” he said, meaning that political decisions will be swayed by ideology unless they are moderated by knowledge of historical events and their consequences.   If politicians had been better acquainted with history, he argues, they would have been better able to foresee the consequences of war in Afghanistan or of creating the poll tax.

“The point of studying history is to inform your politics,” he said, and this is just as true outside the confines of Westminster.   It informs decisions about how people wish to be ruled.

What has this to do with education?  First, knowledge of history allows readers to debunk  nonsense such as “Nothing in the history of British education has improved schooling more than Blair and Adonis’ (sic) Academies programme”.    What, more influential than Forster’s Education Act 1870, which established the framework for English elementary education?  More significant than the steady raising of the school leaving age?   More important than widening access to universities?  (The journalist responsible for the quotation doesn’t know his geography either – the Academies policy is only in England).   Secondly, and more fundamentally, knowledge of history should alert the electorate when government tries to take power from it.

Sir Simon is concerned about “the constant remorseless accretion of power” at the centre.  “The one thing that checks central government is local government,” he warns, “Parliament is now an electoral college for the new oligarchs”.  And it is these proto-oligarchs who want to destroy local government and replace it with central power.

*Saturday Review, 3 September 2011, available only to subscribers
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Melissa Benn's picture
Sun, 11/09/2011 - 17:16

Simon Jenkins is very astute about education and the increasing power grab by central government in recent years - particularly in relation to schools. He understands that contrary to their rhetoric, no government wants genuinely to devolve power. Re education, they want to control schools from the centre or devolve power to their private sector buddies.

Henry Stewart's picture
Sun, 11/09/2011 - 20:02

Very important points, Janet. This government of course claims to believe in devolving power but appears to be doing the opposite. As you say, academies and Free Schools take power away from local authorities and are acocuntable directly to central government. Even the Localism Bill (set to come into force later this year), despite the claims for it, appears to be another step in the "constant remorseless accretion of power". Rather than increasing local authority powers it includes, I believe, 147 new powers for central government over local authorities. This is a centralising government.

Ben Taylor's picture
Sun, 11/09/2011 - 22:38

It's interesting to ask why so many people have grabbed the opportunity to try and start free schools or become academies. Why haven't local authorities responded to their populations and it has been a central government initiative which has unleashed this energy? If it is purely a money question and an LEA wants to retain non academies, is there no way they can make the financial question dissapear through changing their school funding so this is no longer an incentive? It suggests to me some LEAs are not really trying.

I suppose some of the examples such as Henry had just posted about East London might be good examples of local responses. It does however seem there is a genuine problem in parts of the country between state provision and local elector expectation.

There is a problem with the structure of local and national government. It is often isolated, hopelessly overburdened, people no longer feel it belongs to them and is not a focus for civic pride. When local government does do well it is also often still faceless. One of the benefits of academies and free schools may be to make communities more engaged with local schools because a school is a human level people can relate to much more strongly, especially when named teachers such as heads can be more public figures. Have you ever written or spoken to an officer in an LA? Alot of the time they do not identify themselves and they are not accountable in any way as close to teachers or governors. We can conceive of a school as a unit of government and its ultimate accountability is whether someone wishes to use it or not. There may be more to do in improving these structures for accountability and Henry's point about central powers is a good one. I am sure these could be devolved but LAs need to get to used to a different landscape first where schools are the main players and the LEA serves them.

You only have to look at the middle class irrespective of their ethnicity or original background to see that many fear the state sector. Look at the behaviour of some labour MPs rgearding their own children. If free schools and academies can draw these people back towards confidence in and use of state schools that is one of the best things that can happen. I actually hope this increases ethnic and class mixing.

Toby Young's rehabilitation of "grammar schools for all" in a non selective state school, with a public statement of competiting with the best private schools, is exactly what some parents need to hear to come back to state provision. Granted it is not going to be suitable for all pupils, but let different kinds of school provision exist with the ability of pupils to move around and that should be effective. We should see various kinds of schooling which are responsive to all pupils.

If this change in the system works its opponents are going to have to face telling immigrants, ethinic minorities and working class parents in a few years that they can't have this new freedom, whilst the toffs carry on getting anything they want which inlcudes most MPs. Many of these parents will be potential labour voters. Good luck!

Toby Young's picture
Sun, 11/09/2011 - 22:43

Did you write this after a few wines, Janet? Sort out your commas. You've even got one missing in the headline.

JimC's picture
Mon, 12/09/2011 - 05:42

Ignoring the substance of an article because you are only interested in correcting SPAG is hardly the confidence boost one needs about your educational stewardship Mr. Free school whizz kid.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 12/09/2011 - 11:05

Toby – I think you mean apostrophes. I did miss out apostrophes as in "Academies programme" but I was taking my lead from the article itself. The sentence from the article is reproduced below (including error).

"Nothing in the history of British education has improved schooling more than Blair and Adonis' Academies programme."

And shouldn't that be Adonis's?

It could be argued that there was also an error in the article's headline: "The schools revolution in action". Should there also be an apostrophe there, as in "The schools' revolution"? However, I didn’t want to embarrass the article’s writer by pointing out punctuation errors as well as the geographical and historical ones.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 12/09/2011 - 11:11

You are confusing local government officers, who are appointed, and councillors who are chosen by the electorate and can get voted out. Local government officers may well be "faceless" but councillors are not because they are elected and known in the local community. Any constituent can approach a local councillor and complain about any local service. However, this will not be the case with academies or free schools. Parents with unresolved complaints will have to take their concerns to the DfE. As Mr Gove's department is unable to answer letters now, I don't hold out much hope for parents approaching the DfE about a problem with their child in the future.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 12/09/2011 - 11:53

Just to clear up any confusion - the words "Academies programme" did not appear in the article written by Sir Simon in The Times. They appeared in the article in the Spectator headed "The schools revolution in action". Readers wishing to check this can click on the word "nonsense".

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 12/09/2011 - 11:58

Toby - in vino veritas.

O. Spencer's picture
Mon, 12/09/2011 - 17:36

Janet I can see three things wrong with this post.

1. Simon Jenkins made these remarks as a journalist in the context of an interview presumably about the state of British politics. Therefore to say that an historian said such and such is really quite misleading. He may have written a few historical studies but

2. You appear to be advancing the argument that because Simon Jenkins is an historian (not sure if our definitions of historians are the same), his views must be given a high level of respect, and thus his observation that local government checks central government must be correct. Says who? You don't seem to elaborate on how this statement is correct - what are the current mechanisms by which local government check power? Is this effective?

3. Following on from 1 and 2 - because Simon Jenkins is an historian and says that local government acts as a check on central government, the government is wrong to remove the local authority buffer between schools and the centre. Again, by failing to recognise that as respected as Simon Jenkins might be, without elaboration his remarks are just that, remarks.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with advancing the argument that the Academies programme replaces local accountability with central accountability. Or as one might cynically observe the programme replaces a lack of real local accountability with the illusion of central accountability.

However it's quite lazy to look for choice quotes from journalists and pass off those remarks as qualified academic statements. Quoting from an historian would involve quoting from a published work of an academic scholar rather than a newspaper article.

I could just as easily have rigged up a piece about how David Starkey nails the government on social policy. Perhaps some of my underlying arguments might have some credibility but the actual tactic of saying *David Starkey is an historian we must listen to him * is wrong.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 13/09/2011 - 07:37

Simon Jenkins has written a similar article in the Guardian in which he says that one of the threads of English history is “the distribution of power within England, between central authority and local consent”. This tension is still being felt today as the Coalition seeks to centralise power under a smokescreen of “freedom” and “localism” (the latter meaning that locals can do what they like as long as the Secretary of State agrees with them).


Ben Taylor's picture
Tue, 13/09/2011 - 10:10

I was thinking of the local authority officers. There are certainly some good and competent people but on the whole the system is a black box. I have personal experience of officers acting in all sorts of ways which are not consistent and the councillors have no idea. So going to the DfE is just a different black box.

To make it easier allow more choice of school.

Ben Taylor's picture
Tue, 13/09/2011 - 10:29

Typical garbage administration by local authority of a school. Note it could be any party in power of a council, this happens to be labour:


Davis Lewis's picture
Tue, 13/09/2011 - 12:59

I have known local government officers to be removed as a result of poor performamnce or behaviour.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 13/09/2011 - 15:59

I did spot the missing comma - that's now been corrected. However, that doesn't solve the problem of the incorrect* use of the apostrophe in the Spectator article. I couldn't alter a direct quotation (that would be misleading readers) so I have entered (sic) after the original error. It's a pity that these weren't spotted by the paper's editor, or somebody, before publication. Nevertheless, it was inexcusable of me for omitting a comma. However, I shall fall back on the excuse I used to employ in the classroom: "It was a deliberate mistake, and I'm pleased somebody noticed it."

In retrospect, I think "Academies programme" is probably correct if "Academies" is meant as an adjective.

*Lynne Truss (Eats Shoots and Leaves) is quite clear: names that end in 's' like her name (and mine) must be followed by apostrophe s when showing possession (ie Lynne Truss's book, Janet Downs's comments). Fowler agrees although he says that the s can be ommitted in "poetic or reverential contexts" for names ending in s (ie Venus' Bath). I'm unsure whether the writer of the Spectator article was being "reverential" when referring to Lord Adonis, but if we follow Fowler's guidance strictly then the correct usage should be Lord Adonis's.

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