Accountability without power

27 May 05
PETER WILBY | Whenever I hear ministers talking about ‘the new localism’ and the importance of devolving power, I am reminded of St Augustine’s prayer: ‘Oh, Lord, make me good, but not just yet.’

Whenever I hear ministers talking about ‘the new localism’ and the importance of devolving power, I am reminded of St Augustine’s prayer: ‘Oh, Lord, make me good, but not just yet.’

There are plenty of arguments against localism — that you end up with the dreaded ‘postcode lotteries’ or you miss out on economies of scale, for example — but ministers never make them. Instead, they praise devolution and then promptly bury it under a load of new central initiatives.

Almost every proposal on education in the Queen’s Speech portends a further erosion of local authority powers. Ofsted will be able to ‘call for’ the closure of schools and the sacking of heads. Primary as well as secondary schools will be allowed to opt for foundation status.

‘New educational providers’, including parents, faith groups and private firms, will be encouraged to open schools within the state system.

And ministers will press ahead with their programme for 200 city academies in deprived areas. Or more precisely, the former Number 10 wonk, Andrew Adonis — now transmuted, as Lord Adonis of Camden Town, into a holder of ministerial office — will press ahead since, as far as I can make out, city academies are almost entirely his babies.

Ministers will protest that it is possible to devolve power without devolving it to local authorities: parents, churches and other civil society groups can all be local. The aim is power to the people, not power to the local bureaucrats, ministers say.

But, in education at least, we have almost 20 years of evidence — from Kenneth Baker’s grant-maintained schools onwards — that schools outside the local authority ambit become, in effect, schools controlled from Whitehall.

Diversity may or may not be a good thing. Many people will remain agnostic on the subject and ask why the task of creating diversity cannot be entrusted to local councils, with the usual safeguards of allowing frustrated diversifiers rights of appeal.

The city academies in particular will not only drain power from local authorities, they will also drain funding. The Commons select committee on education estimated in March that the set-up costs of the academies are £21,000 per place against £14,000 for a new place in a conventional secondary school. (The contributions from private ‘sponsors’ are rarely significant.)

With this initial advantage — plus all the razzmatazz that invariably attends the opening of a new school — the academies are likely to draw pupils from nearby council-run schools. The latter will then suffer a fall in annual funding. Worse, if the academies run true to form, the neighbouring schools will also get their castoffs: the two city academies in Middlesbrough (which are among the 17 that have already opened) have expelled 61 pupils between them since September 2002, against 15 expelled from all the other secondary schools in the borough. The claim that councils can’t run decent schools thus becomes self-fulfilling.

Yet it may be argued that there is nothing new, when the government is trying to create diversity, in rigging the rules to favour new entrants to the market. For example, when the gas and electricity monopolies were ended, the extent to which established suppliers could cut their prices, to keep out the competition, was severely restricted.

Moreover, it may be argued, putting the local education authority in charge of creating and supervising its own competitors would be as much a nonsense as making all telecommunication companies accountable to BT.

All this is true if we are to see schools purely as market actors. Perhaps this is the ministerial vision. The government’s ‘five-year strategy’ for education, published before the election, envisaged ‘a new role for local authorities, as champions of parents and pupils, acting as strategic leaders of education in their area... Local authorities and local agencies must offer leadership and strategic direction — with really smart accountability’.

I haven’t the faintest idea what this means. Nor does the education select committee. The MPs pointed out that, from 2006, the government intends that all schools will receive three-year budgets. Although the money will be channelled through local authorities, they will have no say in who gets what.

‘We would appreciate some guidance from the government,’ wrote the MPs, ‘on . . . what levers will be available to local authorities to persuade schools to act differently.’ The strategy, the committee concluded, ‘appears to result in all schools ultimately reporting directly to the Department for Education & Skills’.

Not much localism there, it seems. But wait: I think I do, after all, know what ‘really smart accountability’ means. It means that, if anything goes wrong, the local authorities take the rap. In other words, we shall have the nationalisation of control and the localisation of blame. That’s new Labour’s localism for you.

Did you enjoy this article?