I wrote this a few weeks ago and found it today - as the new free schools have now been published (and sadly and annoyingly supported my worst fears about them) and as Blair's awful personality show is on the road it seemed a good time to post.
I think the next post here will be post Spending Review and once I have time to digest it a bit. This is one about big society, education and Blair's legacy where is worked (as he did some good stuff in there - stuff he seems determined to overshadow with his recent interviews and exploits).
So a while ago I got angry about Big Society and now it is coming in. The reason I am angry is because it is a lie. Basically "Big Society" is a wolf in sheep's clothing, claiming to empower communities, but acting instead as a return to Thatcherite "No such thing as society, only individuals and families" policies.
Basically this will work through choice.
Choice is a difficult thing and tends to empower only those who are already empowered but there are examples of it working well. Direct Payments were brought in under Labour, and while some users found the opportunity to employ their own staff, empowering, others found it a burden. And it could be a burden to manage paperwork, if you have never had to before, particularly if severely physically disabled with limited energy resources.
Then came a more flexible system as piloted by Simon Duffy and In Control. This did give people choice which they could exercise. Turning Point did interesting work on this area too. When it comes to some parts of state provision choice can be useful. People working in the community can drive change and it can be beneficial. It has led to some interesting innovation, and to better spending of public money.
Allowing charities to engage in the debate about how to commission services has been proven to have some benefit too. Again this was done under Labour with a major project to improve the commissioning of services, and the links between the public and third sectors.
But then there is the next level (and most of this has been in place since Blair) where an individual can choose which hospital they have their operation in, or choose which school their child goes to. The argument here is that the choice drives up quality, but does it really? Surely to drive up quality there would need to be a surplus of providers and a fair amount of capital spread between them. In both these cases I can't see that happening. We don't have a surplus of schools or hospitals, and we certainly don't have the capital to invest in them.
The Building Schools for the Future programme has turned into a fiasco, and Gove's attempts to rush further policies through on education don't really inspire confidence. If I believed choice would drive up quality, I'd be all for it, but education needs investment, particularly in schools.
Recently there was a furore about the salary paid to a head teacher in a state school, but it shows how short people's memories are. The reason salaries for many head teachers went up, was because there was a shortage of quality head teachers, particularly working in deprived schools. How do we expect to drive up the quality of teaching and care for those who need it most?
This is where I start saying things like "I believe the children are our future" because I do. I think the cuts have the potential to leave us with a lost generation. That might sound a bit overblown but it really is what I feel. We are cutting school meal provision, which means the children who are from the socio economic backgrounds least likely to perform will have another barrier to learning.
Some of the better teachers may be lured to "free schools", which will probably have better facilities, smaller class sizes and more generous resources provided by the (almost certainly) overwhelmingly middle class parents who set them up. Local authorities are being asked to make cuts, they are cutting advice and guidance services, which means that even if those children were able to learn while undernourished, with larger class sizes in unsatisfactory buildings they would not know what to do with it. Or at least would not know the full range of options available.
The other place where this information could be found in the past was from Universities, but as they are making cuts, many are cutting their widening participation provision, which further reduces the chances that these children have the chances of thinking of their options. Of course if they do choose to go to university it is really unclear what the options will be for them by then too.
The whole thing seems like a kick in the teeth for social mobility, and though not everyone wants social mobility, it should be an option. I do believe in meritocracy, and I don't believe that is going to be the system we have.
But there is hope. There is always hope. And that is how I leave you today.