From Baker to Balls: the foundations of the education system - Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

1  From Baker to Balls: the foundations of the education system

1.  This Committee, soon after it first met in November 2007, took the decision to hold inquiries into each of the pillars of the schools system: the National Curriculum, national testing and assessment, accountability structures, and the training of teachers. In doing so, we were conscious of the twenty years which had elapsed since the passing of the Education Reform Act 1988, which underpins so much of what schools do today.

2.  The purpose of this short Report is to draw attention to some of the themes which unify these Reports and to provide a little historical context. We attach as Appendices the conclusions and recommendations from each of the four Reports. We also publish alongside the Report oral evidence taken from four former Secretaries of State and from the current Secretary of State, each speaking about the direction of education policy over the last twenty years and into the future.

3.  It was illuminating and instructive to hear four former Secretaries of State engage in discussion with usand amongst themselveson the principles of education policy. We are most grateful to them and to the current Secretary of State for being candid and forthcoming in their reflections, and we have drawn on their evidence in this Report. We encourage future select committees to take the opportunity, if and when former Ministers are willing, to hold similar evidence sessions and to gather a historical perspective.

Centralism or localism?

4.  The most persistent theme running through each of the three inquiries was the tension between central and local responsibility and control. This was especially marked in evidence on the level of prescription within the National Curriculum and the guidance on how it is to be taught; the balance between testing according to a national standard and assessment performed by a teacher with knowledge of a pupil's capacity and wider understanding; and inspection of school performance against criteria common to schools across the country as opposed to self-evaluation by a school.

5.  The thrust of our Reports has been to urge a move away from central control. We believe that governments need to provide broad frameworks rather than seeking to micro-manage the day to day work of teachers. We favour:

—  a National Curriculum which prescribes as little as possible and with decisions being made at the lowest appropriate level;[1]

—  an extension to all maintained schools of the freedom enjoyed by many Academies not to follow the National Curriculum in its entirety;[2]

—  an accountability system which encourages and supports schools towards a meaningful, continuous self-assessment process, with true self-evaluation being at the heart of what a good school does[3] and schools being genuinely responsible for their own improvement;[4] and

—  teacher assessment as a significant part of a national assessment regime, with the purposes of national testing being more carefully defined.[5]

6.  The challenge is to achieve a balance which respects the expectation from employers, parents and further and higher education institutions that children will leave school with a core of knowledge,[6] and which at the same time allows schools and teachers the freedom to experiment in the quest to provide a learning environment which is stimulating for teachers and pupils alike. The difficulties of achieving this balance, while pressing forward with personal convictions, were familiar to the former Secretaries of State who gave evidence.[7] Mr Blunkett said that "we're all full of contradictions" and gave examples[8] (as indeed did Mr Balls);[9] and he spoke of the need to have "levers to pull" to implement some of his policy objectives. One previous incumbent has recorded their frustration at finding, when arriving in office, that "there were no levers to pull at all".[10]

7.  In all of the four areas which we looked at, there has, over most of the last twenty years, been a relentless trend towards increased central control, although there are recent signs that the balance may now be starting to be redressed. We criticised the level of prescription and central control both in the National Curriculum as it stood in 2009 and in the National Strategies which were designed to support it; but that criticism of the Curriculum would have been equally validin fact, more sowhen the National Curriculum was first introduced, under a Conservative Government, following the passage of the Education Reform Act 1988. Lord Baker readily accepted this in evidence to us.[11]

8.  The current Government has decided to end the contract to run the National Strategies first introduced by Mr Blunkett in the early years of a previous term of this Labour Government. Mr Balls described the National Strategies as being "exactly the right reform 12 years ago" but added that "twelve years on, we are in a more mature place than a national central field force giving advice to schools ... the National Strategies have had their day, but those days are gone".[12]

9.  We were pleased to hear Mr Balls speak of the need to "have the confidence to devolve more resource and decision-making down to the individual school level" and to aim for more local accountability.[13] Our only concernand one which we voiced in our report on School Accountabilityis whether actions will match rhetoric. We found ample evidence in that inquiry that the Government, contrary to the statement in the recent White Paper that each school was responsible for its own improvement,[14] was trying to drive improvement through central programmes and targets, some of which had a distorting effect and were perceived as harmful.[15] A better approach would be for the Government to place more faith in the professionalism of teachers and to support them with a simplified accountability and improvement system which challenges and which encourages good practice rather than stigmatising and undermining those who are struggling.[16]

10.  Central control is manifest in national curriculum testing. We were surprised by the wholehearted support from former Secretaries of State for the level of testing that we have now.[17] We re-iterate that we are not opposed to the principle of national testing. Where we do have concerns is the use of the same test for a range of purposes that cannot all be met at the same time. If pupils' attainment is used to judge teachers and schools, teachers cannot be expected to be dispassionate assessors of that attainment, and teaching to the test is a likely consequence. We therefore have reservationsas does Ofstedabout the effects of national testing in concentrating teachers' efforts upon certain areas of the National Curriculum.[18] We disagree with the former Secretaries of State, and we believe that there is clear evidence that current approaches to testing reduce teachers' scope to use their skills in innovation and creativity.[19]

11.  Even when the tide within political circles has been in favour of devolution and greater local freedom, the opportunity to exercise locally a right to deviate from central prescription has not always been embraced. As Baroness Morris acknowledged, little use had been made by schools or local authorities of the power to innovate under the Education Act 2002.[20] Mr Clarke made the same point and spoke of "a set of cultures" within schools "that was extremely conservative and inflexible".[21] However, in order to take up these opportunities, schools need a mixture of inspired leadership and sufficient financial resources.

12.  The instinct to manage from the centre has led to a greater involvement in the operation of non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs) than is necessarily desirable. We challenged the Department on the role played by its observers at meetings of the Qualifications and Curriculum Agency (QCA),[22] and Baroness Morris spoke of finding "a whole Department that was mirroring what went on at the QCA and had people who were sitting through the meetings". For her, the relationship between the Department and its non-departmental public bodies was "messy" and "not quite right", and it had certainly clouded lines of accountability.[23]


13.  A second theme running through the Reports is coherence and the need to bring forward change as part of an overall vision, rather than fiddling with elements of the whole while failing to give due regard to the consequences elsewhere. We found this particularly striking in the piecemeal approach taken by the Government in reviewing different stages of the National Curriculum.[24] We also found a lack of coherence in an accountability system for schools which is of such complexity, with so many different forces and structures driving improvement, that school leaders and teachers risk becoming confused and disheartened.[25] A further example of incoherence is the absence of clear and recognised pathways for teacher professional development.[26]

14.  Perhaps the most striking example of a lack of coherence is in the 14-19 sector. Our predecessors on the Education and Skills Committee, while welcoming the pragmatic approach taken by many in working for the success of the Diploma as a high quality qualification, saw the Government's decision not to implement in full the recommendations made by Sir Mike Tomlinson and the Working Group on 14-19 Reform as a lost opportunity for a more coherently structured 14-19 curriculum.[27] Mr Clarke strongly agreed: indeed this was one of his chief regrets.[28] Others suggested more radical solutions: Baroness Morris told us that "as long as we've got this system whereby the national curriculum finishes at 16 and yet we talk about a cohesive 14-19 strategy, [the curriculum] will never work".[29] Lord Baker agreed on the need for "a fundamental overhaul of the curriculum" at the "watershed" age of 14.[30]

15.  Mr Clarke made a separate and strong point on coherence, arguing that work should be "a continuous part of what children experience" during the 14-19 phase, including for those with particular academic ability.[31] The journey through the curriculum should, as far as possible, remain seamless even as it continues into the world of work.

16.  A lack of coherence must be ascribed at least partly to the churn in ministerial responsibilityand indeed in senior officials at the higher levels of the Department.[32] Mr Balls pointed out that he was the second longest-serving Secretary of State since Lord Baker,[33] yet he has served for fewer than three years. Almost inevitably, the constant turnover at ministerial level has led to initiative overload, which we concluded had taken its toll on schools and their capacity to deliver a balanced education to their pupils.[34] For a new administration, the pressure for change is especially great, as Mr Blunkett cheerfully acknowledged.[35] We also note the steady slide towards the inclusion of a portmanteau education bill of disparate measures in the Government's legislative programme for each Parliamentary session.

The next Parliament

17.  We could not have made the recommendations which we did, for instance on the need to trust to the professionalism of teachers, had we not had a degree of confidence in the standards of teaching in schools today. Not everyone accepts the claim by Ofsted that we now have "the best teachers ever";[36] but both Baroness Morris and Mr Blunkett had no doubt that the quality of teaching had improved substantially in recent years.[37] Baroness Morris spoke of teachers' "sheer professionalism",[38] and Lord Baker took the view that the demands on teachers nowadays were "infinitely greater in terms of managing their classes" than when he was at school himself or in office, adding that teaching was now "a very difficult task".[39] A priority for the next Government will be to continue to encourage improvement in teaching standards.

18.  Our Reports on the National Curriculum, Testing and Assessment, School Accountability and Training of Teachers went into considerable detail about the strengths and failures of current policy, and they are contemporary documents. However, the two threads running through each of them and which we have identified in this short Reportachieving a suitable balance between local and central control, and the need for coherence of policyhave dogged education policy for decades. They are, however, real and urgent challenges, and the education policies of the Government in the next Parliament will be judged by their success in meeting them.

19.  This Committee has found good quality evidence vital in reaching its conclusions in these four Reports. Equally, Government policies must be based on the best available evidence. We urge the next Government to ensure that it draws upon a sound and well-resourced educational research base in developing its policies.


1   National Curriculum, Fourth Report from the Committee, Session 2008-09, HC 344-I,paragraphs 53 and 56 Back

2   National Curriculum, Fourth Report from the Committee, Session 2008-09, HC 344-I,paragraph 73 Back

3   School Accountability, First Report from the Committee, Session 2009-10, HC 88-I, paragraph 63 Back

4   School Accountability, First Report from the Committee, Session 2009-10, HC 88-I, paragraph 260 Back

5   Testing and Assessment, Third Report from the Committee, Session 2007-08, HC 169-I, paragraphs 58 and 61 Back

6   See Baroness Morris, Q 8 Back

7   Lord Baker distinguished between the right of the state to decide a framework of education and the role of teachers in teaching and applying that framework: Q 2 Back

8   Q 5 Back

9   Q 51 Back

10   Rt Hon Baroness Shephard of Northwold: see Q 6 Back

11   Q 10, Lord Baker was agreeing that the curriculum had been 'over prescriptive' and 'too long'. Back

12   Q 55 Back

13   Q 55 Back

14   Your child, your schools, our future, DCSF, Cm 7588, paragraph 4.1 Back

15   School Accountability, First Report from the Committee, Session 2009-10, HC 88-I, paragraphs 252 and 260 Back

16   School Accountability, First Report from the Committee, Session 2009-10, HC 88-I, paragraph 266  Back

17   Q 22 to 26 Back

18   Testing and Assessment, Third Report from the Committee, Session 2007-08, HC 169-I, paragraphs 58 and 119 Back

19   See Mr Clarke Q 23 Back

20   Qq 31 and 32 Back

21   Q 17 Back

22   Policy and delivery: the National Curriculum tests delivery failure in 2008, Sixth Report from the Committee, Session 2008-09, HC 205, paragraph 35 Back

23   Q 18 Back

24   National Curriculum, Fourth Report from the Committee, Session 2008-09, HC 344-I,paragraphs 103 and 105 Back

25   School Accountability, First Report from the Committee, Session 2009-10, HC 88-I, paragraph 249 Back

26   Training of Teachers, Fourth Report from the Committee, Session 2009-10, HC 275-I, paragraph 145 Back

27   14-19 Diplomas, Fifth Report from the Education and Skills Committee, Session 2006-07, HC 249, paragraph 14 Back

28   Q 10 Back

29   Q 10 Back

30   Q 10 Back

31   Q 10 Back

32   Mr Clarke Q 34 Back

33   Q 44 Back

34   School accountability, First Report from the Committee, Session 2009-10, HC 88-I, paragraph 239 Back

35   Q 34. See also Baroness Morris Q 35 Back

36   See Mr Balls Q 45 Back

37   Q 34 and Q 40 Back

38   Q 41 Back

39   Q 42 Back

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