The shelf life of an Education Bill

The Government’s promised Education Bill will be out soon. According to the DfE website, Minster of State Nick Gibb told the 2011 North of England Education Conference on 7 January that the Bill will be shortly, although those sitting in the conference hall in Blackpool can be forgiven for thinking that he actually said “next week”.

The construction and prior consultation of government legislation in the UK continues to be shrouded in secrecy. The number of reports urging that the process be opened up from august bodies like the Hansard Society, and indeed manifesto commitments, is not insignificant, but nothing has changed. Scanning the weekend press for comments from sources close to Ministers has often been a useful tip for learning when a major announcement is about to happen. Health Ministers orchestrated a very effective media campaign last week both before and after the mid-week publication of the Health and Social Care Bill. Not so for Education Ministers whose bill has been promised for this week. And Google produced nothing but there was the following report from earlier this month in the Deccan Chronicle, a regional Indian newspaper.

The Andhra Pradesh Education Act will be amended after a gap of nearly 30 years. The state government is of the view that the prevailing Act made in 1982 is “toothless”.

For England, over the same period there has been an Education Act on average once a year, and several years there have been two, as in 2010, and even three in 1996 and 1988. Have English children benefitted from the prodigious efforts of UK Parliamentarians? Sadly, for the Government’s chosen instrument of success, India entered students for the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) for the first time in 2010, and results to make international comparisons will not be available until the end of the year.

It is not just the number of Acts which matter but their length. The first blockbuster was the Education Reform Act 1988. The creation, Parliamentary scrutiny and implementation by the central education department is seen over 20 years later as a resounding achievement. Since then, we have had blockbusters in 1993, 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2009, all tending to outstrip the earlier one in length and complexity. And, except for the last, the year after a general election. The core civil service skills to put together and implement such legislation have been retained by the DfE. The cynic might observe that the Department has become a self-perpetuating oligarchy – delightful as each civil servant is as an individual. Each new piece of legislation needs to contain short-term obsolescence so that the legislation creation skills can be use next year, or the following, to draft another piece of legislation to resolve problems now obvious with the earlier piece. The galling thing is that invariably the problems were pointed out at the time but the legislative machine didn’t want to respond.

It has become impossible for those in local authorities and schools to keep abreast of these changes. Gone are the days when prospective head teachers would be expected to have read and understood the legislation. The civil service has become the interpreter of the law through guidance of one or sort or another with all the problems that guidance will reflect ministerial policy and not explain the full flexibility of the legislation approved by Parliament.

The hope is that Ministers will de-clutter the education and children’s services legislation using the forthcoming education bill, as they have suggested they will do. The problem is that this will mean too great a shift of power from Whitehall to Town Hall and school. Instead, we will have another long education bill and be back with another one in just over a year’s time. The greatest help for school improvement would be to legislate once and do nothing for 28 years. For a year or two at the end of this period, the legislation might appear “toothless” but this would be a small price to pay not to have change without ceasing over the last 22 years.

John Fowler is the LGIU’s Education Expert and will be leading a seminar on Fri 28th Jan looking at the new Education Bill and its implications for local authorities.

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