Politics

What the next government must do for schools is get out of the way

The example of our work in Newham is that trying to run things from the centre doesn’t work, write Robin Wales and Clive Furness

The example of our work in Newham is that trying to run things from the centre doesn’t work, write Robin Wales and Clive Furness

8 Jul 2023, 5:00

Social democracy has made life better for the vast majority of people, but it is failing. Public services are in crisis, and none more so than education, with up to 40 percent of teachers planning to leave the profession by 2027 according to the NEU.

In education as in other public services, central bureaucracies stand in the way of improvement. A reasonable demand for high standards has resulted in an overburdened workforce encumbered by administration. The politicians’ solution? More regulation and bureaucracy.

But our experience of running Newham council shows an alternative is possible. We are passionate supporters of the scientific method, so we tested everything we did against the evidence and we have confidence that it works.

To tackle the problem of bureaucracy, we created small, nimble and properly incentivised and funded organisations and gave them the power to deliver agreed outcomes in whichever way they saw fit. Over 10 years, during austerity, we were able freeze the regressive council tax, make no cuts, and initiate a number of new services. Set the outcomes, incentivise, devolve power and monitor results, not process.

It’s an approach that is perfect for schools – the small nimble organisations which deliver education. Government oversight should be sharply focused on determining desired outcomes and councils should be empowered to take swift and decisive action to intervene where those outcomes are not being met. As to how things are delivered , that should be left to the skilled practitioners.

All we politicians should care about is that outcomes are being delivered and young people are thriving. As should be evident to anyone by now, trying to run things from the centre  doesn’t work. It increases bureaucracy and creates additional administrative work for schools and encourages a fixation on administrative structures rather than educational outcomes.

In Newham, we worked to improve school leadership, encouraging partnership working and the sharing of best practice. In what at the time was the second poorest borough in England, it allowed us to deliver huge improvements at all levels for our schools and our community. We were the first council to introduce free school meals for all primary children, saving money for working families on low incomes and improving results for all our children.

How things are delivered should be left to skilled practitioners

With this came the recognition that bureaucrats have created a state which disempowers people, replacing personal agency with dependency. As we outline in our new book Left, Right, Wrong, Newham council determined to focus on developing the skills and abilities which enable individuals to deal with the problems of life.  Politicians seek to increase the wealth of the nation; they should seek also to increase the personal capacity of its citizens.

Self-evidently, education is critical to developing resilience, so we funded initiatives focused on areas which could make a difference. We provided parents with an early years service guarantee, and by 2018 Newham was the only local authority in the country with no attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their more affluent peers at age 5.

We agreed with the very capable (even if Conservative) schools minister, Nick Gibb to run a phonics pilot. In tandem, we introduced a reading guarantee that any child falling behind would get 1-to-1 tuition, funded by the council from outside the education budget. As a result, 83 per cent of children caught up and stayed caught up.

And we introduced the ‘every child programme’, providing free access to sports, theatre, chess and music. Every child in primary school was taught to play a musical instrument to grade 1. Our objective was to develop resilience by building skills for life, and fifty thousand children benefitted.

So we have a radical suggestion for the next government: Let schools run things their way.  Agree on outcomes, then monitor those outcomes, and incentivise and support schools to deliver them. They will.

We have the novel idea that reducing bureaucracy (including Ofsted) and freeing teachers to do the job they are paid to do – teach – might well lead to better, richer outcomes.

One thing is certain: We can’t afford more of the same.

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