Are politicians bad for education?
17 Jul 2007 Guardian Education
One of the political triumphs ascribed to Gordon Brown and Ed Balls (when he was merely Brown's political adviser) was the creation of the monetary policy committee. By removing politicians from sensitive decisions on interest rates and giving the Bank of England independence, the move allowed a more rational, long-term approach to the economy.
Is it now time for an education policy committee, along similar lines, to replace short-term, eye-catching initiatives with professionally appraised, evidence-based, medium- and long-term strategies?
The idea has been floated by Jim O'Neill, head of global economics research at Goldman Sachs. (Interesting that it should emerge from the financial sector, not the education world.) Not surprisingly, it has, so far, not been taken up by politicians. But its supporters see a chance of a more sympathetic response from Brown. After all, he has mooted an independent board to run the NHS.
And, last week, Balls announced the membership of the new National Council for Educational Excellence (NCEE), drawn from business and education. There is not a politician among them.
So is the education policy committee a runner? The other week, I attended a private debate on the proposal. Regrettably, it was an off-the-record occasion. However, the arguments were frank and fascinating.
Its supporters argued that you would never run a business the way we run education, with the boss replaced every two years. (We are on the fifth education secretary in 10 years.)
They point out that most education policies take much more than the length of a parliament to produce results, and that ministers frequently change their predecessor's policies before long-term outcomes are known. Claims and counter-claims on standards leave the public confused and teachers undervalued. An independent body could decide value-for-money issues in a business-like way, rather than through bargaining and lobbying.
The pro lobby seemed to win over many educators present, who agreed that five years was a long time in politics, but a very short one in education. However, the politicians who were there argued that comparisons with the monetary policy committee were misguided. While the MPC does not run anything, its education equivalent would have to run 24,000 schools and hundreds of universities and colleges.
A former education secretary said that when he took on the job, none of his civil servants seemed ever to have been in a school. He knew what parents wanted because, as a politician, he had spent time in schools in his constituency. It was, he said, precisely because he ran the risk of being dropped by the prime minister or the voters that he took decisions that the public supported.
In the end, I found neither argument completely convincing. The idea that anyone, even non-politicians, can be neutral on educational issues is pie-in-the-sky. Our views on education are not dispassionate; they are based on the sort of society we want to live in.
Politicians may be in touch with the public, but they can rarely admit that the public may be self-interested, misled or just plain wrong. They must always seem to be doing what parents want. They also find it hard to resist, as one commentator put it, hanging "more baubles on the Christmas tree", overburdening schools with responding to every ill in society.
In the end, even an education policy committee would have to be appointed by someone - most likely by the government. The idea of a non-party political group of experts to sift evidence and advise governments - but not to take the decisions - is feasible. But in the end, democracy - with decisions taken by elected politicians - still looks like the least worst option for running our education system.