Just over a year ago, I met someone who until recently had been at the heart of government policymaking on education.
The coming months, he suggested, would be nightmarish for then education secretary Nicky Morgan, as the problems mounted of implementing policies, many of which had been set in train by her hyperactive predecessor Michael Gove.
And so it has proved. Morgan herself was gone by July, swept aside in the post-referendum reshuffle. But the change of leadership at the Department for Education should not distract from just how much of a battering schools policy has taken in the past year.
Morgan, of course, had to climb down last May on plans to use legislation to force all schools to become academies by 2022. Then a watered-down promise to force academisation across individual local authority areas was also shelved in the autumn. The government is now trying to effect academisation more quietly, behind the scenes.
Also last autumn, ministers announced a U-turn on testing pupils in the first year of secondary school amid many tales of Whitehall mismanaging the operation of primary assessment.
In December, a report by the National Audit Office on government control of day-to-day school spending included the remarkable line that the DfE had not factored in the cost of its own policies when evaluating the savings it seemed very optimistically to be expecting of schools.
It was not even possible, said the NAO alarmingly, to be sure if the DfE was “managing the risks to schools’ financial sustainability” effectively.
Last week two more independent bodies gave quietly devastating assessments of key government policies.
On the Tuesday, the Commons education select committee found that the government “lacks a coherent, long-term plan” to address the “worsening” issue of teacher shortages. It had failed to hit its own teacher recruitment targets for the past five years, the report confirmed.
One of Gove’s key reforms was to replace England’s previous system, where the government mainly allocated teacher training places to universities, with one where mainly school-based training providers sought places based on their own needs.
However, the report raised serious questions over whether the new structure allows effective planning, with no real answer to problems of acute teacher shortages in particular areas.
Free schools funding
The next day, the National Audit Office returned to the fray with its report Capital funding for schools. This found that the cost of the government’s free schools policy had ballooned. In 2010, it had been predicted to cost £900m to open 315 schools by 2015. By March 2015, the actual cost – to open 305 schools – had doubled to £1.8bn.
In addition, the cost per pupil of opening new free schools rose by a staggering 27% in real terms between 2010-2015. For secondary free schools alone, the figure was 37%.
Public sector workers saddled with salary increases struggling to get above zero over that period must wish they could turn themselves into a favoured government education policy.
Other staggering NAO revelations included that the DfE had bought 19 free school sites, at a cost of £200m, in areas where none had yet been approved to open; that the department had paid 60% more than market value for 20 sites; and that it had spent more than £30m on individual site costs for four schools.
It also warned that local authorities were being held responsible for school place planning across all types of state school, but had no control over the provision of places in academies and free schools within their area. What could possibly go wrong?
Yet more failures
This week, the Commons education committee has published a new report on another major government policy: the reorganisation of schools into quasi-private multi-academy trusts. Again, the findings were scathing, raising “significant concerns about the performance, accountability and expansion of multi-academy trusts”.
The report found that “the DfE has a long way to go to demonstrate that public money given to academies is being used effectively” and that “it is far from clear that the DfE… can cope with the further pressure on [its] financial oversight that significant expansion of MATs [which remains the government’s wish] will create”.
And only three weeks ago, the committee said the DfE had not convincingly made the case for another of its flagship reforms: expanding grammar schools.
Finally, looming over all education policy in England is funding, with the NAO saying schools face average cuts of 8% in real terms by 2020. Ministers are seeking to use a new national funding formula to try to remove historic disparities in funding between different local authorities. But last week, even the group that campaigned for the formula said the DfE was getting it wrong.
All of these findings suggest serious problems with the fundamentals of policymaking: bad planning and often seemingly ineffective or questionable spending and monitoring of public money, with possible large knock-on effects for service users. The DfE seems, in particular, to be perpetually on the naughty step of the public spending watchdog, the NAO.
There has been much discussion about the state of the Labour party after last week’s Copeland by-election defeat. It is not this blog’s place to comment. But opposition parties wanting to put pressure on ministers over education have no shortage of aspects at which to aim.
Warwick Mansell is a freelance education journalist