Sir Peter Newsam’s article for the Oxford Education Society is shocking and terrifying. Does he exaggerate the problem? Sadly, he does not as point after point resonates with my own experience. I knew that “the balance of responsibilities between local and central government established in the 1944 Education Act ……designed to prevent the totalitarianism against which the war was fought” had been destroyed. The last forty years have seen the “withering of democratic involvement in education” and we are hurtling, unchallenged by any political party, towards a form of totalitarian decision-making, apparently believing that “competition always improves standards” despite our knowledge that “competition between unequal teams nearly always has the opposite effect”.

How can it have happened? Sir Peter’s career has run broadly parallel with mine. I completed my Diploma in Education (the forerunner of the PGCE) with a distinction at the Oxford Department in Norham Gardens just a year after him. He became Chief Education Officer for the Inner London Education Authority in 1975 just before I became Vice Mistress (a title to dine out on) of a northern Sixth Form College. In 1987 I became Headmistress of an independent grammar school and in 1989 Sir Peter became Director of the Institute of Education at London University. When he was Chief School’s Adjudicator from 1999 until 2002 I was chairing appeals as a former head and a Governor, inspecting schools and appraising heads in my retirement. We worked at very different levels but saw the same communities struggle. How could we have let it happen?

The article traces that change in balance to four large steps from 1944 when the curriculum was the responsibility of heads and governors, when Local Education Authorities proposed the opening or closing of schools or changes to their character.. First, the failure of government to adopt the 1970 proposals for 78 education authorities, large enough to be efficient but small enough to understand local needs. It seemed important that our local areas maintained their identity and in that regional stand we lost sight of the purpose of the reorganisation. A missed opportunity.

Then came the breaking of the links between Education Committees and the Minister, between Chief Education Officers and the senior officials in the Department for Education as local authority Chief Clerks became Chief Executives and fuelled a move to corporate management. Into the gap that created came agencies developed by central government – Local Authorities could no longer make decisions on important aspects of education in their areas. Perhaps we saw the creation of Chief Executives as a move to strengthen Local Authorities. I remember being rather puzzled by the new Manpower Services and failing to understand where they fitted into the system. I am ashamed to say that I thought them more relevant to vocational education and technical colleges and, in the bubble of my grammar school /sixth form college life, the academic and the traditional seemed more important. We were concerned about our pupils and strove to do the best for them as we saw it.

From 1963 the curriculum debate was informed by the Schools Council representing the Department, schools and teachers until it was abolished in 1984. From then on Newsam saw room for independent thought disappear as the curriculum was “nationalised”, the third step. Schools were responsible for the delivery of closely defined and measurable content, not for the curriculum itself. The Secretary of State now has direct and statutorily enforceable control of what is taught and tested in maintained schools which are induced to enter into funding contracts as Academies or Free schools to free themselves from the closest strictures of that control. I served on one of the bodies created to give a token input into the debate. The Consultative Committee met some four times a year with the National Curriculum senior officers at Albany Warf in York. Each union sent its representatives and I represented independent schools. We were listened to with courtesy, questioned politely, reported to our parent bodies and made little difference. There was a feeling that we were fortunate to be consulted and unions were emasculated. On an examination board committee I helped turn the national curriculum into an examination syllabus with insufficient time and pressure to do more than damage limitation..

It became an exercise in survival. Comply or die. Teacher training was boycotted and the government had a scape goat. It was teachers who were not prepared to change. In fact most were anxious to do their best for their pupils and concerned as valuable areas of the curriculum were removed or blurred. In our concern to see that young people did not suffer we failed to speak out loudly enough or fight for the right of professionals to be in the centre of the debate. Change can be a threat or an opportunity and the heavy handed control of the Secretary of State fuelled fear not risk taking. As a new head, weighed down by folders and regulations, I had to work very hard indeed to find a way through which gave my school a chance of succeeding. We were too inward looking to see the big picture and understand what we had allowed to happen.

The fourth step was the emergence of the Secretary of State as the sole decision maker for English education and the nationalisation of publically funded schools. Newsam sees this as more than an invitation to sign up to a direct, individual funding contract. Schools are induced and even required to do so. The results are not state schools but government schools, effective for direct control and open to the whim of future holders of the office. Meanwhile local authorities are destabilized, money diverted from them to induce opt-out schools, and England has a most inefficient education system. MPs have given unfettered powers to the Secretary of State. “Parliament, created as an effective bulwark against totalitarianism has legislated itself out of that role in the constitution”. These issues have rarely been the subject of Parliamentary debate except by former practitioners within the House of Lords. Parliamentary time is given to discussion of the targets, the statistics, the emergencies but rarely the philosophy required to answer the question “Education for what?”. There is no big picture thinking here.

In schools, the fight to survive sucks the energy from the most idealistic. There was no time to stop and think things through. That year’s test and examination candidates must be prepared. A generation was at stake and to serve them and preserve their own sanity, teachers, head teachers and local authority officers were lost in the immediate, in the needs of their own institutions. How could they look to the future of their communities and the democracy of their country and be revolutionaries while remaining responsible for their current pupils? Yet that is what they must become. It took retirement to help me see how the threads discussed in this article and by the 21st Century Learning Initiative come together.

Schools and teachers are not the only players in this field to have been left out of the debate. There are no longer Local Education Authorities, Senior civil servants are not close to the centre of decision-making, Inspectors are no longer “Her Majesties” relied upon to give informed education advice. Instead we have “advisors” with no public accountability. Unions are sidelined, any genuine wish to improve the quality of education interpreted as self interest. Independent research does not always conclude as the government wishes and so is left to private committees. Universities are often seen as subversive – after all they challenge students to think and a “teaching profession which thinks about what it is doing and places it in a historic context does not sit well with a Secretary of State”.

My journey has lead me to respect the potential within young people who are born to learn, to see beyond the rebellion of adolescence, to try to work with the grain of the brain as we have come to understand more about how humans learn. The 21st Century Learning Initiative (formerly Education 2000) kept me focussed upon the really important question “what kind of education for what kind of world” and to see that community-rooted education serves young people, their parents, society and the world best. Those young people are the future and if it is to be a democratic future we have to shift the direction of change. Already “well on the way to having the most totalitarian and most inefficiently managed school system in Europe”, our country has to halt the hurtle towards the buffers.

This isn’t about our own comfort or even just our own children, or reward or success as the 21st century has come to measure it. It isn’t about doing the best we can in difficult times, being pleased to have survived the latest initiative, making poor decisions work for the children we care about or even as I did, creating the best environment I could under the circumstances so that every child could matter. This requires us to ask the big questions and think about the future of our country. What kind of country do we want it to be? It demands that we are prepared to be responsible subversives, facing why we have allowed it to happen, unwilling to do nothing with our watch. Newsam asks whether the time has come for a major rethink and an Education Act of the same order as that of 1870 to stop the runaway train. Education which is centrally controlled to the strangling point and at the same time fragmented cannot be reformed. Our local authorities are not politically or administratively able to take decision-making back. We need radical change, a new start which will demand us all to take responsibility for England’s children as once communities did. Read Sir Peter Newsam’s article and do something about it.

Janet Lawley