Good housekeeping needed in education, says former Downing Street adviser

09 March 2017

The education system in England has never been more fragmented or more difficult to manage and explain, a former UK government adviser has told a seminar.

Jonathan Simons said the growth of academy schools in England in particular meant that there was a pressing need for a new model of educational governance, a “suitable toolkit for a decentralised and complex education ecosystem”.

Mr Simons, who worked under former Prime Ministers Gordon Brown and David Cameron, was until recently Head of Education at the think tank Policy Exchange. He has just been appointed Director at the not-for-profit Varkey Foundation.

In a seminar held by the Cambridge Assessment Network, Mr Simons gave an example about the complexity of the system – if a parent in England has a problem with their child’s school, who do they go to if the head teacher and governors are not able to help? He said the answer stretched to more than four paragraphs, including the local authority, the Department for Education and the Secretary of State, the inspectorate Ofsted, the Education Funding Agency and the relevant Regional School Commissioner. “The fact that parents don’t really understand what they have to do on a frankly very common occurrence shows that we have an issue,” he said.

He said that up until the Butler Act in 1944 - which ensured all children would have secondary education for the first time - central government in the UK had not legislated much on education. Since then, however, “having started late, it rushed ahead with the zeal of a convert”. He said this had created a system full of “hidden wires, junction boxes and additional cabling tacked on at different intervals, with no one person having a clear view of the whole structure”. This, he concluded, had led to a lack of parliamentary scrutiny, a lack of democratic legitimacy, perverse incentives and unforeseen consequences, but above all a lack of consent from schools and teachers.

He concluded by saying the challenge for policymakers was to recognise the weaknesses of both the “historical hands-off approach” and the more recent top-down or contractual management approach.

“We need to work out when and where law can be used, and make it efficacious to do so”, he said.

Mr Simons expands upon his seminar in an essay that is part of a collection published by Policy Exchange. Nice aims, shame that the law’s a mess… also features an essay from Cambridge Assessment’s Group Director of Assessment Research and Development Tim Oates CBE, in which he calls for policy to be clearly and coherently reinforced by legislation. 

“These essays are not an attack on policy but are designed to support policymakers,” Tim said. “Good housekeeping in respect of legislation is an important element of statecraft, and should not be neglected.”