Tuesday 22 October 2013

Energy, free schools and the search for flexibility

I first got interested in energy policy when I was at university at the end of the 1970s.  It is strange to remember quite what we were up against in those days: a strange semi-soviet state organisation, the Central Electricity Generating Board, presided over by a Gromyko-like figure called Lord Marshall.

It poured money into nuclear energy (with little to show for it).  It throttled research into renewables, and miserably failed to solve the problem of nuclear waste.  Oh yes, and there was also Tony Benn's nuclear police force.

Ah, yes, it all comes flooding back.  The Edge of Darkness and all that (I think it should be on TV again).

We may not want a profit-making oligopoly running our energy, paying vast salaries to managers, but the last thing we want is the CEGB back again.  What we desperately need is some kind of system that is flexible and responsive, which encourages people and communities to invest in generating their own energy.

I thought of this as I received a number of emails forwarded from the ubiquitous internet campaigners 38 Degrees, urging me to sign a petition on their site calling for energy to be re-nationalised.  An amazing 14,000 people seem to have signed it.  Clearly they don't remember the CEGB.

But then, this isn't a blog post about energy - it is a post about flexibility.

I got interested in how we might make our public services flexible enough to suit a very wide variety of needs when I was looking at choice for the Barriers to Choice Review.

The mechanisms that allow for choice in health and education, for example, really ought to make the systems more flexible.  In practice, thanks to the way these systems were designed under Tony Blair - largely by economists - they can often make the services more inflexible instead.  You then get formal, approved 'choices', but they all look much the same.

Nick Clegg's intervention on free schools seems to have ruffled some feathers, but a close examination of what he said seems to reveal - well, what?  It is hard to read, but I'm kind of imagining he is making a similar point: we need basic standards for all schools, but more flexibility everywhere, not just for the favoured few.

Yes, the point he makes most strongly appears at first to be the opposite of this - that schools should only employ qualified teachers and that the national curriculum should apply.  Then he says this:

"I'm proud of our work over the last three years to increase school autonomy, which, in government with the Conservatives, has been through the academies programme."

So why the fury from backbench Conservatives?  Odd and, yes I have to admit, I don't agree about the qualified teachers.  There may well be people out there who have life experience that would be valuable for schools.  I wouldn't want to force everyone through teacher training. 

Flexibility means going with local energy, and the energy of local people, rather than clamping down on it - whether that is unqualified people who have something to offer or the energy of local parents shaping a new school.

But where Nick Clegg was absolutely right is that the artificial division emerging between local authority schools, forced into rigid adherence to a national curriculum that doesn't apply to free schools and academies, is divisive and quite unnecessary.

We have learned from the kind of flexibility that the free schools have provided.  That flexibility should now be extended to all schools.  A very basic curriculum should apply to all schools too.  Flexibility works, as long as people are held to account for the education their schools deliver.

And actually, in the long run, the direct connection between the academies and free schools to central government is a threat to this flexibility.  They need to come under the auspices of co-ordinating local authorities in the same way, but with the flexibilities guaranteed.

Public services are not very flexible these days.  They are more expensive and less effective as a result.  But the last thing they need, and the last thing the energy market needs, is to swap the current mildly inflexible system for something completely turgid.

Therein lies the edge of darkness.

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