Beware of Silver Bullets | Ed Clarke
One of my favourite Spitting Image sketches involves the cabinet unanimously voting to privatise the very concept of privatisation, on the grounds that this would surely make it brilliant. “Any other business?” purrs Cecil Parkinson. Maggie is triumphant. “I should bloody well hope not – we’ve sold it all off!”
The debate over private versus public ownership continues to rage with reference to rail. Labour are chomping at the bit to renationalise the railways, supported by a significant swathe of the populace (who have, presumably, forgotten that the infrastructure is already publicly-owned and that British Rail was notorious for its dreadful service and curly sandwiches). Others on the right, meanwhile, maintain that Major was correct in privatising them in ’94, despite the fact they have not really been terribly good since privatisation either. Given that neither systemic reform succeeded in solving all the problems of the rail network, we might conclude – controversially – that whether something actually functions is ultimately more important than how it does so.
A similar yearning for a silver bullet ensued during the May years at the prospect of new grammar schools. To their detractors, this represented the first horseman of the socially iniquitous apocalypse; to their proponents, a miracle cure, capable of whipping up an educational utopia in a trice. Moving in the direction favoured by either camp constituted, as far as they were concerned, a remedy to redress at a stroke the myriad ills of the education system at large. In truth, of course, neither would be anything of the kind.
Now that Rebecca Long-Bailey has announced her intentions to find out “how quickly we can bring academies into local authority control”, we can expect the same tired old tug-o’-war to be played out between academisation and de-academisation. Although I am broadly in favour of academies – they have, at least in part, proven very successful – I confess I was increasingly baffled as the last gasp of the Gove administration sought to academise everything in sight (just as the Major government eventually found itself absent-mindedly privatising traffic cones and Edwina Currie). Rather than being a means to an end – voluntary self-emancipation for schools who wished to be free from the limitations of local authority – it became an end in itself, a dogma to be foisted upon unwilling institutions for its own sake. It badly undermined our erstwhile success in education from 2010-15 and, in tandem with May’s ill-conceived ramblings about grammar schools, gave rise to the confusion over our education policies which persists into the present day. The last thing we need, however, is the chaos of de-academising them all over again with the concomitant destruction of excellent academies and free schools who flourish, liberated from councils determined to impose multi-sensory kinaesthetic engagement or the art of straddling a bean bag.
Sometimes sweeping changes do bring about great success – I would argue that applies to the privatisations carried out in the 1980s, like British Telecom. I would further posit, however, that such opportunities for finger-snapping reform are vanishingly rare. We need subtle, detailed education policies to address the kind of highly complex issues that arise in schools. Alas, I have seen little of this in recent years, on either side of the house.