The row about whether all schools should have to adopt academy status is an unwelcome distraction.
You would have thought that the European referendum was sufficiently exciting. A Cabinet split into two factions, a decision which will determine Britain's place in the world for a generation, a debate on which the future of Europe may depend; surely this is the vortex into which all the energies of the politicians are being sucked, the anvil on which reputations are made and broken, the only significant question for 2016? It seems not.
Few readers will have commanded a ship going into battle, but those of us who have read Patrick O'Brian know how you had to begin in Napoleonic times. The first thing was to clear the decks for action. That meant stowing all the kit not required for fighting so that the decks were free for the gun crews to fire the broadsides on which victory depended. Rather in the same way you would have expected that the Government would try to free itself of other contentious business so that it could focus its attention on the one debate which really mattered and minimise the chance of making mess of it. In fact it has done nothing of the sort. In his recent Budget speech George Osborne, who seems to have graduated from being Chancellor of the Exchequer to a Mikado style "Lord High Everything Else", created a row within his own party over whether schools throughout England should be forced to become academies.
That involves the government in a second major conflict which can only divert attention from the more important issue, the first, of course, being the dispute with the junior doctors. One can see how the Government got locked into that one. The background, it will be remembered, was a public concern, inevitably egged on by the press, that patients were not being adequately treated in hospital over weekends. That led, as things do in these populist times, to a manifesto pledge to create a seven day a week health service, and in fulfilment of that pledge the government is trying to force a new contract on junior doctors. Not being an expert on the health service, I cannot judge whether the old contract is fairer than the new one, but the move has certainly created a huge level of resentment in the medical profession, with many saying that the story about care not being as good at the weekends was wrong anyway so that the manifesto pledge started from the wrong place. Perhaps that is right but, however you look at it, to get the junior doctors out on their first ever total strike can hardly be described as a management success.
With this presumably unwelcome distraction already there, the Government has decided to push forward with the conversion of the remaining local authority schools, and in particular primary schools, to academies. No doubt they think that that is a better system for governing schools and it may be that they are right. Even if that is the case, however, it is not obvious why you would force the new system on schools which are already well run or why you would announce it without fully explaining how local authorities are to satisfy their statutory obligations to see that education is provided without control of schools. Perhaps the change will tidy up the system, but is it really worth getting embroiled in this row when everyone should be focusing on a far more important debate?
Of course, generally speaking, governments like reform. They are made up of individuals, and people who go into politics are generally keen to help improve the national lot. Perhaps they look at the achievements of Atlee's postwar Labour Government with its great reforming agenda and hope to be part of an administration which is mentioned in the same breath. There is nothing wrong with that as an ambition. There are practical advantages too. A Government with a clear program will simply ride over misjudgements and scandals which would stick to a becalmed administration. Forward thrust acts as a political Teflon. Besides many of the reforms being introduced by this Government are admirable. Mr Gove deserves credit for his program to humanise the prison system. Although it is proving difficult to do, the simplification of benefits into a universal credit is clearly long overdue. But there must be a risk of undertaking too many struggles at once, and the conversion of good schools to academies does seem like one of those things which could have been left on one side. That would allow more focus on the things which the government does have to deal with, maybe with better results.
It must be difficult for a Prime Minister to know which programmes to push forward and which to pull back, but in making the decision he needs to remember what it is that the public who elected him expect. The present government is a Conservative one and the label send a distinct political message. It is not, despite what you may hear in the City, a manic attachment to market forces. Nor is it, despite what some on the left would say, the government of the country for the rich. Who, after all, could win an election on that agenda? No, the trademark of a Conservative government should be that it thinks carefully before it changes things so that society develops by a process of mutation rather than by ripping things up for the sake of change. Perhaps the academy system is more logical. Perhaps its universal application will be tidier. Still, where local authority control is working well there seems little point in disrupting it and imposing something new. Certainly it does not seem worth creating a new front of political discord when the Government has so much which is far more important on its plate.
Republished from the Shaw Sheet