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Last Updated: Wednesday, 3 October 2007, 23:27 GMT 00:27 UK
Democracy 'holds back education'
By Gary Eason
Education editor, BBC News website

Sir Mike with Hackney schoolchildren
Sir Mike with a new generation of Hackney schoolchildren
The education system should be freed from local democracy if it is to meet the challenge of global competition, a leading educationist says.

Sir Mike Tomlinson said parochial considerations thwarted the taking of decisions needed to make improvements.

He told the BBC News website that accountability could be through a board with a wide skills base, as in Hackney.

Sir Mike is retiring after five years chairing the non-profit trust that runs education in the London borough.

"I think it would be very, very difficult for anyone to say it hasn't worked," he said in an interview.

"Clearly it was from a low base but, that said, the improvements have been considerable over the five years and have been sustained."


GCSE results in the east London borough have gone from 31% getting at least five good grades in 2002, when the Learning Trust took over, to 54% this year.

Actually, what does local democracy bring to the education scene?
Sir Mike Tomlinson
Key Stage 3 results in the tests taken by 14-year-olds have risen three times faster than the national rate since 2002-03, the trust says, from an aggregate score of 158 to 204.

Key Stage 2 results, for those at the end of primary school, have risen much less, from 197 to 216 - but Sir Mike said the priority had been to get the secondary schools transformed, to stop pupils going outside the area.

The number of schools deemed failing by Ofsted has dropped from 10 to one. Pupil absenteeism has been cut by almost a third.


Sir Mike, who celebrates his 65th birthday later this month, said he felt the main reason the Learning Trust had made a difference was that it had been "totally and utterly" removed from the political arena.

It was imposed on the council by the government after a series of damning reports on Hackney's education service and its capacity to improve.

The Learning Trust's board includes the non-executive vice-chair of UBS Ltd, three head teachers and two chairs of governors, three council representatives, the local police superintendent and a former director of Bournemouth children's services.

"The trust can make decisions quickly, can be innovative in the actions that it wants to take and ideas and projects it wants to back," Sir Mike said.

"We didn't have to go through the council chamber and debate it and all of that rigmarole. We could just do it."

'Serious difficulties'

Sir Mike added: "I think it is a model which ought to be looked at very, very carefully.

"A question ought to be asked, however provocative it seems, and that is: actually, what does local democracy bring to the education scene?"

He knows this is controversial, but says the time in which to improve educational performance is running out.

"I don't think that's being alarmist: an awful lot of other nations are moving at a faster rate than we are."

There were many consequences but top of his list would be the social ones, if people could not even hope to get into jobs because they lacked the necessary qualifications.

"Unless we are able to improve things in probably five to 10 years - then we could find ourselves as a nation in serious difficulties.

"If that's the issue one has to say, are the present structures that we have the right ones to achieve that?

"Most have been in place since 1944; if they haven't managed to do it in the past 60 years, should we be thinking of something different?"

Trust schools

He stresses there are some very good local authorities.

"But across the system there's no argument about the fact that we simply are not achieving enough with a significant proportion of young people - right up to the age of 21."

While Hackney now has three academies and is to have another two, Sir Mike does not regard those as the key.

Instead he wants to see more trust schools - created in the last Education and Inspections Act as a new way to give schools more autonomy and freedom to innovate, with the backing of outside partners.

"I would want all secondary schools to be a trust in their own right within the Learning Trust, and try to get the academies into that too."

Parents his trust had consulted were not interested in what sorts of schools were available.

"What was coming through very, very clearly is parents saying, 'What we want is a good local school that our children can walk to.'

"In their terms, a good school is about being safe, being happy and achieving.

"It's really not rocket science - it's get the right people in place, give them backing, tell them you believe in them, and let's go."

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