• Details
  • Transcript
  • Audio
  • Downloads
  • Extra Reading

Schools and politics do not mix. They are, as Woody Allen would say, "at two." The sad consequences are there to see over the last half-century. Can they be disentangled? Yes!

Download Transcript



Lord Sutherland of Houndwood KT FBA


That great Anglican, David Shepherd, who was the very distinguished Bishop of Liverpool, also had another great advantage in life: he was a magnificent opening batsman, and he opened the batting for England.  He would report how every time he took a taxi somewhere, 'the double whammy' followed: 'There's two things that taxi drivers think they really know about,' he reported, 'one is how to run the Church of England; and the other is how to open the batting for England.'  I have got a 'double whammy' tonight: it is schools and politics.  Two things I guess most of you know all about is schools - we have pretty well all been to one - and politics - what is wrong with the current lot, what will be wrong with the lot who follow, and the lot who used to be there before that.  Expertise in both these matters seems quite common.

The relationship between schools and politics has a very long and important history.  On the beneficial side, there have been important consequences.  The most obvious of which is the Education Act of the 19thCentury, which required that children should attend school until the age of 11.  This was a very great advance in both the conditions of our society and the ways in which children were brought up - better going to school than being chimney sweeps.  Many developing countries would envy that provision of children having the entitlement and the provision being made to go to school until they were 11 years of age.

Over the years this changed and was eroded in various ways, but that was an entitlement that was laid down, and I am happy to say, the very distinguished philosopher John Stewart Mill was one of those most involved in pushing for this.  So schools and politics can have very positive intersections and can work together in ways that are beneficial for individuals and for society.

However, it is not quite as simple as that.  What I want to do tonight is look at two examples: in the first, I believe that politics have a very considerable part to play, and I will explain why; in the second example I want to give, we should get politics further out of schools and the educational process.  Both of the examples are contentious.  The first one, by common consent, is how we deal with faith schools - everybody has a view, and we all argue about it.  The views here do not only vary but they also intersect and jar violently sometimes.  The second is contentious because of the proposals I am going to make.

So, to faith schools.  The involvement of the church in school education has a very long and distinguished history.  In fact, for several hundred years a great deal of the provision of education for those who otherwise would not have access to it, particularly in England, was through the churches and church schools.   The presence of these schools played a very important part in the development of the availability and accessibility of education.  Initially it was the Church of England schools, but these were increased in range and type of religion following the great Education Reform Act of 1830's.  The act did not sound like a recipe for creating additional church schools, but that is how it worked out, and some clearly saw that was part of the intention.  The effects were that other religious communities were given the right to own property and hold it in charitable trusts.  You might think that is a long way from church and faith schools, but in fact it is what made it possible for other religious communities, initially the Roman Catholic Church, and in due course the Jewish community, to own properties that they could run as schools and have charitable status.  That was how it grew, and the tentacles spread out from purely Church of England church schools, to Roman Catholic schools and a small number of Jewish schools.  Interestingly, the number of Jewish schools was never thought large enough for the rubric to be changed from 'church schools' to 'church and synagogue schools'.  But since other communities have come in they are now known as 'faith schools' in the rubric. 

But the intersection of politics and schools in this particular context of religiously-based schools went on and still continues through a series of Education Acts.  The Butler Education Act marked an attempt to find a humane future shape for our education system when we were still deeply at War, in 1944.  This Education Act established the pattern that ran right through, until nearly today.  In fact, the attention politicians have paid to religion in schools is never high profile, but it is very considerable.  I will give just one example.

The 1992 Schools Inspection Act, which created the new form of school inspection, was one that I had some role in implementing and putting into practice.  I can tell you, as the first Chief Inspector under the new system, one of the most delicate and time-consuming tasks was to sort out whether there should be any special provisions for church schools and faith schools in the inspection regime.  What we came up with was known in the office as SMCS, which is Spiritual, Moral, Cultural and Social Education.  This was the nugget round which we developed the pattern of inspection laid down in the new law, which required the inspection of religious education in church schools to be different from the inspection in non-church schools.

The issues still face us about the ways in which faith schools might or might not develop.  As I suggested, the Church of England came first, then Roman Catholic schools, then the small number of Jewish-based schools, and then significant, increasing numbers of Hindu and Muslim-based schools.  In the most recent Education Act of 2006, the debate got pretty hot in the House of Lords.  In fact, of my limited time there, it was the debate in which I think the most angry emotions were expressed, albeit very politely, with the issues really provoking members of the House of Lords.  The Act provoked from Kenneth Baker the suggestion that all new faith-based schools should take in 25% of their intake from those who were not members of that faith community. This would mean that if you were going to have a new Roman Catholic school, 25% of the pupils would have to be non-Roman Catholic, and so on for other faith schools.  That sort of issue, if it had gone ahead was seen by the Muslims community as an attempt to prevent them developing the schools they wanted to develop, because most of the new faith schools will probably be Muslim schools.  There is not going to be a rush of new Anglican schools, and probably not of new Roman Catholic schools either.

So there was great opposition, and indeed, the charge in the opposition was led by the Roman Catholic element who did not want this at all.  The Anglicans rather tiptoed along behind and came up with a compromise, which was interesting.  Muslim peers and those who were briefed by the Muslim community said they took the same view as the Roman Catholics, and what they wanted was the same treatment: i.e. to admit their own pupils in ways they thought appropriate, as church schools do now.  It was a very interesting debate, and it led to blasts of belief and unbelief across the Chamber of the House of Lords.  People do get worked up about this.

My reason for selecting this example is that I think people are right to get worked up about this.  I have my own views on the matter and you can find it in Hansard, but this is an issue not just about schools; it is an issue about the nature of the society in which we wish to live.  There were some peers who were saying this should be a wholly secular society in regard to all public and state activities, so religion should be right out of the school situation completely, and if that means closing down schools as they are at the moment, so be it.  They thought the benefits would be great, even if you lose what are some of the best performing schools in the country.  There were others who took the view that what we need are more Muslim schools, and there were one or two, actually I thought very sensible people, who said, 'Well, why don't we look for the possibility of putting schools together that contain children from a number of religious communities, but are specifically faith-based?'   If there was a will you could do it, but that is not yet on the cards.

What I am suggesting is this is actually an issue where politics and schools essentially intersect, because what we are talking about is the kind of society we want to live in: wholly secular; multi-value; multi-religious?  These are different options.  It is a political issue about what society is like and how we want it to be, and it seems to me that this is absolutely right.  I was talking to one or two media people the other day, and their reaction was this debate is not taking place in the wider community, and yet, the impact it could have on the community that we live in is huge, and also, it has to do with politics in the best form; with the policies that will shape the nature of the society in which we live.

Therefore, I think this is an appropriate area, and indeed, there should be enhanced intersection, because how else are we, the wider community, to express our views on the matter?

That is an example to show that I am not against, indeed I do not think you could be against politics and education intersecting in creative and important ways. However, now to the negative example, which has to do with the role of politics not simply nationally but locally.

Clark Kerr was one of the great university presidents and he eventually became President of the University of California, that great federal system which has driven so much innovation, educationally and technologically, in our world.   In this role he would appear at what they called 'commencement' and he would award the degrees that the students had gained.  At the end of one such ceremony he came out of the hall and was taking his robes off, and one of the parents came up to him and said, 'Ah, Mr President, I just wanted to thank you for what your institution has done for my boy!  My boy, Omar,' he said, 'you know, he was shy and retiring and he really wasn't focused.  But your university has made him into somebody who has got a great future ahead of him!'  This is what you like to hear, but the parent went on: 'Just one other thing though, Mr President, can I ask you, why does knowledge have to be so expensive?'  Kerr's reply was brilliant: 'If you think knowledge is expensive, try ignorance.'  - A very important point: if you think knowledge is expensive, try ignorance. 

The point being made is that whether you pay fees, or whether you get it on the state, education is a very expensive business.  Currently £5,600 per pupil is put into the system.  Gordon Brown was boasting to us only a few months ago he hopes to drive it up till it becomes £8,000, which is the average cost of a per pupil place in the private sector.  These figures illustrate knowledge, education and schools are expensive, and that is inevitably why there is an intersection between politics and education.  The question I want to ask is: are there limits, and if so what are they, to the constraints that should be put upon political involvement?

What is the source of all this cash that comes into the system?  One answer is 'the Government', but of course that is not the answer.  It is you - taxpayers, private and corporate - who are the source of all the cash.  But nonetheless politicians speak as if it is their cash.  You will hear Chancellors saying, 'I will give £8,000 per pupil to schools.'  But of course he is not giving, but only handing on money that he has taken quietly from us.  Politicians become proprietorial, and this is where it begins to get dangerous.  If they think they are giving, they really do think they wield true power, and that they can therefore dictate to the schools.  Maybe it is just an over-enthusiasm of the tongue getting carried away, but at times it appears that that is how they actually think.

This political mistake compounds that element of mistake and delusion into a second error because this moves onto compound the reasonable wish for schools and those who spend money in them to be accountable for that money.  That is perfectly reasonable, because if somebody is handing over money that I have earned I want to make sure it is spent in sensible, effective and efficient ways, so a degree of accountability is quite acceptable.  But, the political mistake that then follows is a confusion of accountability and micro-management: politicians begin to think not just that it is their job to take a view on what kind of society we have and what kind of education system fits that aim, but it is their job to tell the education system in fact how to run itself, and they begin to micro-manage.

Just to illustrate the problems this can cause at the level of a new headteacher: imagine a new headteacher saying, 'I have just got into this job, I am responsible for all these pupils and I would quite like to know how much money per pupil I am getting to provide for their education, because I am going to be to blame if it goes wrong.'  So, on appointment, the new headteacher says, 'How much money per pupil is available for me to run the school?' at which point, she's told to ask the local education authority.  She asks if it is they who decide but she is told: 'Well, not quite.  Their money comes from the local authority.  The local education authority gets it from the local authority.' So she asks if it is the local authority who decide, but the response is: 'Well, not quite, because the local authority have to ask the Treasury for money to give to the local education authority to give to the schools.' She then thinks it is the treasury who decide, but she is told that: 'Well, not quite, because the Treasury has to put a budget before Parliament that presumably has been decided in Cabinet, so it is the Cabinet or it's Parliament.'

By now, the headteacher is thoroughly bemused and wants to seek reassurance.  So the headteacher says, 'Well, okay, we have got all these players involved.  Could you just reassure me that despite the many steps and filters on the way, a sum of money is put in at the top for each of my pupils, and it eventually comes down to me to spend in my school?'

Would that it were so simple!  Let alone the complexities of the arrangements of these six steps on the way, they have to put up with SSAs, an FSS, an SFSS, an SF (that's the Standards Fund), the SSD (the School Standards Grant Fund), the SFF and the DSG, and the proposed culmination of the school development grant from the school of standard grant in a single standard grant.  So it is a complex business.

This complexity is, in places, justified.  However, the complexity offers to each step on the way the possibility of top-slicing.  As the money comes down the system, there is room to have just a bit of a snip here and there.  It used to be very clearly the case in England, and in Scotland it still is the case.  The local authority gets a block grant from the Treasury, and they can vire the money around.  They say, 'This year, the political hot potato is care of the elderly, transport, buses, road repairs, getting rid of waste, cleaning the streets', and so snip-snip-snip on some of the other budgets, and schools are as subject to that as anyone else.   On the whole, they have been not too badly protected, but there are often headlines which express a real worry.  Notice, however, that the volume of any top-slicing is set by the upper layer.  So the local authority slices it before it goes to the local education authority; the local education authority take their cut before it goes to the schools. 

Here is a question of accountability: the temptation to top-slice goes hand-in-hand with the opportunity to top-slice.  This is a dangerous situation because of the temptation to top-slice to protect your bit.  As the temptation combines with the opportunity with no real comeback, we have a system that is potentially dangerous, and this is the point that I want to make to you: the risk of top-slicing and the opportunity of top-slicing go hand-in-hand.  If you increase the bureaucracy in the system at the higher levels, you are able to fund it.  The lower levels do not buy a share of bureaucracy.   They do not say, 'Well, we would like to purchase an Estates Officer because we are having a new building and we will purchase him this year but not next year.'  They have an Estates Officer system whatever the needs of the particular school in place. 

If you look at the figures of the flow of money through to schools in Scotland you can see some alarming suggestions of all of this.  For instance, Lothian provides 83% of the money that comes in devolved to heads, whereas the top runner somewhere has 89%.  That is a variation of 25% of throughput in local authorities and local education authorities.  That is not easily justifiable in principle.  When you look at it in detail, of course there will be variations - some of these places have school transport needs because they have widely scattered schools; some of them have particular needs because the need to provide special education for a higher proportion of the population is there; or there is a need for additional English language teaching because of large immigrant communities.  Yes, there are special needs, but 25% is a large difference, perhaps unaccountable for by this simple means. 

Not only this, but the ways in which the money goes down the system requires the possibility of, in England, each of the 150 local education authorities need a bureaucracy to transfer this cash down.  Now, 150 is far too many.  The smallest one has less than 200 school pupils to look after.  Larger ones in Kent have 200,000 plus, but each of them requires a statutory bureaucracy.  You have 150 Directors of Education.  I am not against Directors of Education, and I have had good friends who have been Directors of Education, but do we need 150 of them, each with significant support staff, significant finance department, significant planning department, and so on? That is the question I am asking, but that is the structure we have in our current school situation.  The money goes down the system, and you have to have 150 bureaucracies to pass it on to the next stage.  That, it seems to me, is probably 142 too many. 

In some cases, local education authorities will employ thousands of people before you get a single school teacher or school cleaner in post, and provides a question of cost which has to be asked: is this the right way to have a system involving basically local politicians?  Indeed, that is what local authorities are for, because local authority councillors are elected and they need something to do and a significant department and staff to look after.

It is a dangerous and volatile situation, and I think it costs a huge sum of money that is probably not being well-spent.  It is out of this that I want to strip some of the political involvement with what goes on in schools.

The question was asked, 'What are local education authorities for?'  The answer given in the paper, central to the Civil Service and Whitehall and the Department for Education and Science was:  'To support schools in raising standards, but to date, inspection evidence does not convincingly demonstrate that they have had a major impact.'  So they get a lot of money which they are supposed to put down the system and they are supposed to support schools in raising standards, but when the inspection begins - and inspectors are now required to inspect not just schools but whole local authorities - this is the sort of judgement that they are coming to. 

Indeed, there was an exchange in letters in the Education Guardian between a senior Ofsted inspector and a senior local authority official about this topic.   The Ofsted man replied, in one letter: 'If you are saying the crucial job for education authorities is to insist on a minimum acceptable level of provision and to ensure that children, often the most vulnerable children, are not let down by a minority of schools, you will find Ofsted agrees; but our inspections have found that too many authorities do not concentrate sufficiently on that central task.' 

In other words, you begin to top-slice your budget by begging to push the money out towards a lot of new and impressive-appearing ideas at the expense of the places where it is really needed.  There are clear examples available of this where inspection reported X, Y, and Z, and the local authority said they would deal with it and then spent the money in other ways.  So this is the outcome of inspection of the system of local authorities and local education authorities.

In the midst of these exchanges published in the Education Guardian one can find the inspector replying to the local authority man, as a good civil servant, saying: 'You yourself have said that poor political leadership is often the root cause.  Well, we agree, and our findings bear you out.'  That is not a reason to say that we have offloaded the blame from the officials.  I am not in the blame business, but this is what is happening, and very large sums of money are going to service this system instead of going directly into schools.  But this is a topic I will come to in a minute.

I have, in my bag, the budget of a school that lives in the regime, and this is not atypical, whereby over £5,500 per pupil goes in at the top of the system and goes down to the school.  That headteacher gets £2,500 per pupil, and that is not atypical, and so that much has been top-sliced - in his case, more than half of the notional per pupil sum.  It cannot take 55% per pupil to run all the stages in between, can it?  I am not saying the money is mis-spent.  Sometimes it does very good things, and it makes provision for special educational needs schools and so on that do not come into this category, but 55% per pupil is an awful lot.

You will be pleased to know that the Government have started to notice this, and they have started to notice it here in England in a way that is ahead of what they are doing in Scotland.  I think some of them have noticed in Scotland, but they have perhaps lacked courage.  The Government, having noticed this, have started putting constraints on the money going down the system, and they have tended to say, 'You must limit your bureaucratic slice to X or Y%.'  That is great that the Government policy is shifting towards putting constraints on local education authorities, but they still have about a dozen different funds that go down the system.  This is not going far enough because it is not probing deep enough into the issue.  They have still got 150 bureaucracies to support, and they are saying that these bureaucracies should not have all that much to do because we do not trust them with the money in quite the way we used to.  So they are pushing the barriers in, but there is still these 150 bureaucracies running to make their decisions?  If the Government reach the direction in which they seem to be travelling, there would be nothing for the LEAs.  This is because the government policy is not cutting out the middle man, but constraining the middle man.

Well, there I have given you a problem, and I think it is a real problem, and anyone in education will accept it.  The fact that the Government have noticed and are putting constraints in is a sign that that is also something they have recognised.  Is there a solution? 

This is where I do get a bit controversial.  I think there is, and I think that solution is basically to cut out local education authorities.  You then have the Government, with a large pot of money, dispersing it.  You cannot give it straight to the schools.  I remember one Secretary of State actually suggested to me 'Stewart, I have got the solution!'  I said, 'What is that?'  'I know,' he said, 'I will bring every school directly under my financial authority control, and we will just put the money straight out to the schools.'  I paused and I said, 'All 25,000 of them?'  He said, 'Oh- do we have 25,000 schools?'  Clearly, that is not workable, and the dangers of money getting to the wrong place, being mis-spent, misused, are very considerable.  I do think you need something in between, and my proposal is for a National Schools Funding Council.  This would be a quango in one sense, but actually, a body with some independence, so the role of politics then changes radically. 

The first job of politicians to take a view on the kind of society we are and what we want to be, to express our perceptions on that through Parliament, and to set objectives for the education system that are in line with that, because we elect them for.  That is the very important job of politicians in relation to schools.  I have just given the one example of faith schools, but there are many others I could have given.

At the other end, what, if any, is the role of politics?  I think there is a role of politics.  I do believe that a single National Funding Council for Schools would have too many schools and would not be sufficiently alive to variations regionally and otherwise.  I would have thought somewhere between eight to ten regional sub-committees would be a good idea.  To those sub-committees I would propose that we have a number of elected places and members on those sub-committees.  These would be elected with a specific remit for education, as they are in the USA, and equally to ensure that schools have representatives of the local community on the school governing body, a proportion of elected places.  Therefore, with a National Funding Council, what you would be looking for is the kind of expertise that can take the Government objectives and polices that we all have signed up to, our democratic elected system, and they have the expertise there to deliver.  To allow a degree of democratic accountability they have a number of people elected on the regional councils.  This is to ensure that the thing is not becoming a monolithic machine as well as to feed in what the needs of the community are that are distinctive.  If you live in a rural community you will realise the needs are very different, and the ways in which schools operate have to be different as well.  Thus you have a system in which expertise plays a major role.

One of the things this would do is limit national politicians to their real job.  At the moment they seemingly have a habit of meddling.  We often see headlines created when a politician has a dull weekend at home and says something impressive to their constituency to make the headlines on Monday.  Whether it is a matter of sorting child obesity through dictating menus to schools, or any other hot topic of the moment, it suddenly becomes a headline on Monday morning.  Fortunately, these things do not usually come to pass, but one can understand the dismay amongst schoolteachers when they are afflicted regularly by the threat and often the actual need to makes changes after changes.

Often these ideas created are perhaps good ones, but it is their volume and ease of suggestion which I want to protest about.  At least when they put a new inspection system in it had to be a major bill that was debated in both the House of Lords and the House of Commons.  It was out for consultation for 18 months and had the proper process of a Green Paper, a White Paper, a draft bill, and debates.  But the wish to have a couple of headlines, is another matter.

My proposal would limit national politicians to their proper role.  It would ensure that what they do is to set objectives and ensure that these objectives are carried out.  These are long-term objectives and not individual thoughts week by week.  These are not 'the History curriculum should change in the following ways?'  That has been going on and rumbling in the background - 'We do not have enough about the Battle of Waterloo' or perhaps 'We have too much about that and not enough about the Tolpuddle Martyrs,' or perhaps 'We have had enough of them and we do not have enough about Simon De Montfort and first English Parliament.'  The way in which they attempt to manipulate goes on and is very worrying.

Of course, on my proposal there would be no local education committee, keen to make their mark as election time comes up with headlines in the local papers with new and apparently impressive ideas.  There would be a Funding Council that has significant expertise and local elected involvement on it to help make the decisions and encourage schools and school governing bodies.  This is where I believe the real community participation should take place - school governing bodies working with the headteacher to come up with innovations and to bid for funds that are appropriate to their school and perhaps not to others.

Andrew Adonis is currently Minister for Schools and basically has to take the blame for everything the Government does.  In an article he wrote for the House magazine in the Houses of Parliament he wrote: 'The state of independence we are forging,' and this is for schools, 'provides substantial autonomy in terms of governance, management, ethos and mission for individual schools.'  This is part of the Government squeeze on local education authorities.  It is a Government wish to multiply their current number of about 40 by five, and possibly, in due course, by ten.  Now, without passing judgement on these, what this means is that if the Government drive forward and more of these are created.  There are roughly 3,500 secondary schools currently, so they will be approaching 10% of all secondary schools having this autonomous status. 

That 10% would be run out of a back pocket in the Department for Education and Science, because the money does not go through local authorities but goes to the schools without the local authority having the same top-slicing ability.  That means that, (a) the Government are deliberately on a course to constrain the role of local authorities - I have made that point already; but secondly, it means that as the number of these schools grows they will require a system between the Secretary of State and the schools, because if the Secretary of State is politically responsible for every penny that goes to every school.  As elections come round, or as local MPs have to be bought off from opposing Government in the House of Commons, the temptation for that individual to put an extra thousand into the school in their own constituency will be huge, and so you need a filter.  Therefore, I believe that they will need a Schools Funding Council, because they have already started taking schools out of local authorities.  If that is going to happen anyway, my argument is lets use that as the pilot and push that right through the system.

This proposal is having that effect, and there will be a need for a different system.  My version of it is the Schools Funding Council.  But the final point I want to make is that this is a way of taking politics out of schools.  I think it is thoroughly right to do that through the Funding Councils, though I am not against political involvement in schools, as I have suggested, on the issue of faith schools for example.  The importance of a political consensus, involving all of us, on the nature of the society we want to live in is fundamental, and the way we do that in this country is through Parliament, not through newspaper headlines.

That is my view of schools and politics: one way, more of it; another way, less of it.



©Lord Sutherland of Houndwood, Gresham College, 7 March 2007

This event was on Wed, 07 Mar 2007

Stewart Sutherland

Lord Sutherland of Houndwood KT FBA

Provost of Gresham College

Lord Sutherland became Provost of Gresham College in September 2002. Former Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh, Lord Sutherland also held a number...

Find out more

Support Gresham

Gresham College has offered an outstanding education to the public free of charge for over 400 years. Today, Gresham plays an important role in fostering a love of learning and a greater understanding of ourselves and the world around us. Your donation will help to widen our reach and to broaden our audience, allowing more people to benefit from a high-quality education from some of the brightest minds.