Most 'reforms' in education have two elements that underpin them: 1) they are based on the fairytale of universal 'decline' 2) since 1988 they have been carried out by small clique without the so-called checks and balances of constitutional democracy.
1. This fairytale is a multi-dimensional construct made up of a mixture of : a general despising of children and young people; a sneering view of low-paid public servants generated by people who buy education along with most other services; a distorted view of the strengths and weaknesses of previous eras favouring a nonsense that better order prevailed in the past; a buzz dominated by a protestant/puritan view of work, duty, punishment, the 'fall of man' and original sin and what are seen as the opposites of this ie pleasure, laziness, fun.
2. The Secretary of State for Education has become a job which is one of the least accountable in the whole of constitutional democracy - no matter who holds the post. The extent of this unaccountability is only visible when we compare it to the kind of job it was before 1988. At this time, the various standard 'checks and balances' were in place - institutions and processes which our leaders and historians will still boast about as if they are still in place. So, in the past decisions about education were made as a result of a complex set of processes involving local authorities, the Civil Service, parliament, the professional teachers' associations, university departments of education, the inspectorate (HMI) and on occasions representatives delegated from the teaching unions. Very little of this was 'constitutional'. As with a lot of processes related to government, it had arisen mostly out of custom and practice - which is why the Thatcherite/Blairite/Coalition-ite governments have found it all so easy to sweep to one side in the name of 'reform' - or more particularly in relation to education - in the name of brushing aside the 'education establishment'.
Just to be clear, I'm not lauding the old procedures as ideal. The system reeked of old-boy networks, privilege and a patronizing approach to what is a universal right - education. However, in relation to the power of the Secretary of State, it involved much more of a consensus than is in place at the moment. To take one example, the opening and closing of schools: this could not be carried out by the Secretary of State making that decision entirely on his or her own. Local authorities making what was supposed to be a decision on the basis of the provision they offered across their whole administrative area made a recommendation, which was then approved or disapproved by the Minister in consultation with HMI and the Civil Service. In relation to the curriculum, this was thought to be a highly complex matter requiring active participation from a wide-ranging team of people who were themselves representatives from professional groups with long histories of research, educational experience and evidence collecting. Underlying this was an understanding - perhaps unstated, perhaps assumed - that in order for curriculum changes to take place, the body of the teaching profession needed to be on board. When you look down the list of names on, for example, the Bullock Report or the Plowden Report, you can see that some effort was made to represent the majority of associations and interests involved in that particular endeavour.
Again, a criticism can be made that it was hierarchical and patronizing but in comparison to what we have now, it was markedly different in intent and quality.
By making the minutiae of what is taught and how it is taught a matter of the Secretary of State's policy and directives, there has been a shift away from schools, local authorities and indeed parliament as the final arbiters of what goes on in classrooms. The counter to this might be to cite the case of Academies, where surely there is much more autonomy? Well, it's a bogus autonomy. The Academies are locked into competition for 'customers' with the league tables acting as a policing system preventing co-operation between teachers and schools. Norm-referenced exams guarantee the number of pupil failures so 'my academy' must do better than 'your academy' or we'll be closed and re-opened. What's more each Academy is directly responsible to....the Secretary of State and not to parliament or the local authority. All decisions concerning an Academy's fate are in his or her hands.
In my 'Dear Mr Gove' letter coming out this coming Tuesday in the Guardian I have gone into more detail about his, most of which inspired by an article by Sir Peter Newsam written a couple of years ago. I will link to it here after it comes out.
In the meantime, any of us who are interested in education as a place where teachers and pupils are engaged in learning through co-operation, invention, investigation and discovery might think how we can deal with this shift in power. I am totally in favour of engaging with the nitty-gritty of what is right or wrong about structures in education, ideology of 'reforms', the testing regime, the actual policies of this or that curriculum change - while at the same time maintaining that the real problem is how education is run - no matter who is in charge.
A truly reforming Labour administration would reform this top-down, totalitarian approach to education before engaging in the detail. Our notion of reform in education should start with ideas about what an Education department could look like after the dictatorship of the Secretariat has been abolished.