John Harris

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The Stalinism of Tory small-staters | John Harris

Increasingly heavy-handed Ofsted inspections offer a window on the government’s anachronistic love affair with centralism

Truancy crackdown to include children aged four” was the Guardian’s headline, flagging up a story about Michael Gove’s national crusade against truancy and tardiness, and the clunking fist of central diktat. Education may not actually be compulsory until five, but his department is to insist that schools compile attendance figures for reception class – even nurseries, it seems, may have to follow suit – and ready them for publication and perusal by Ofsted. Such is one upshot of a report published in April, written by the government’s “expert adviser on behaviour”, Charlie Taylor – the same report, incidentally, that cleverly recommended stabilising the homes of habitual truants by docking their parents’ child benefit.

Meanwhile, that part of my local grapevine that includes several other parents and a few teachers suggests that the tyranny of Ofsted is now turning toxic. Its threats are like an unshakable headache; communiques sent out to parents suggest that everything has to be just so, lest the inspector calls. Moreover, suspicions that inspections are skewed to serve government policy go back to New Labour’s initial academies drive, but now seem to have attained critical mass: as the leader of the NAS/UWT put it early this year, perhaps we are moving at speed towards “Ofsted … being seen by teachers not as an inspection system, but as an arm of government.” And a clunkingly powerful arm at that: its new boss, Michael Wilshaw, seems keen to be portrayed as a kind of sadistic commissar, driving through his and Gove’s notion of excellence and academic rigour while apparently glorying in all the fall-out.

“If anyone says to you that ’staff morale is at an all-time low’, you know you are doing something right,” he said, weeks after taking up the job. The weekend’s headlines, then, must have made him ecstatic: under the Gove-Wilshaw regime, reported the Observer, a third of teachers don’t feel respected as professionals, and half have recently considered leaving the profession altogether.

Put all this in its political context, and one overlooked aspect of the coalition’s mixed-up mindset becomes clear: the party – no, parties – who habitually rail against the centralised, lever-pulling state, gleefully making it even more so. If you’re being generous, Gove’s cosiness with Ofsted and drive to create thousands of academies and free schools represent something paradoxical: policy dressed up in the rhetoric of decentralisation and empowerment that actually threatens the complete reverse. Viewed cynically, it’s all a simple con trick: a vast power grab whose most basic elements are obvious. If a school succumbs to increasingly irresistible pressure and transfers to academy status, it effectively places its fate in the hands of Whitehall; the same applies to free schools, and a supposed grassroots “movement” overseen by 100 civil servants in London. Both crystallise a threat crisply summed up by Peter Wilby: “the creation of a fully centralised school system in which the secretary of state for education has the powers of an elected dictator.”

Aneurin Bevan – a great man, but an exemplar of a grindingly centralist age – wanted the sound of a dropped bedpan in Treorchy to reverberate around Whitehall; Gove, it seems, wants to know whether the whiteboards are all working in Telford. It’s hubristic, verging on mad – and out of kilter not just with Conservative and Liberal thinking, but also with the way we increasingly live: a vision of state power that might have just about worked in the wake of the second world war, but that will founder against modern expectations of initiative, influence and professional esteem.

Plenty of other headlines attest to the same problem. Today, the Royal College of Nursing is claiming that the NHS is close to breaking point, and 60,000 frontline jobs are under threat – while Andrew Lansley pursues his madcap revolution, conceived in London seminar rooms, drafted in Whitehall, and then rendered Soviet-esque in its incoherence by all that wrangling at Westminster. Back in the realm of education policy, Nick Clegg will today relaunch the government’s pupil premium – and, like a good liberal, propose that if an Ofsted inspection judges a school’s poorer students to be failing, “the whole school will be judged as failing”. As with New Labour, the essential idea is a mixture of an unquenchable zeal for “reform”, threats from the centre, endless inspections and massed box-ticking: Stalinism crossed with management consultancy, which makes last week’s Clegg-Cameron relaunch in an Essex tractor factory beautifully apt.

The underlying story goes back decades, if not centuries, and includes one of New Labour’s most overlooked manoeuvres – retaining an essentially Old Labour model of government, and using it in the cause of “modernisation” (outsourcing and “diversity of provision”, incidentally, are mere canards – if G4S or Serco are nominally in charge, it doesn’t alter the essentially monolithic relationship between state and citizen – indeed, the tyranny therein of target culture and “output specified contracts” actually makes it worse). The coalition, it seems, has enthusiastically copied over the self-same ideas. Think of the basic point like this: do Gove and Lansley look like liberators, come to give power away, or deluded apparatchiks, kidding themselves that diktat can be effective in an era when our lives grow ever more diverse and complicated?

And so to one faint glimmer of hope. When recently reminded of David Cameron’s suggestion that school students ought to stand up when their teachers enter the classroom, Gove’s shadow Stephen Twigg said this: “I don’t think we politicians should be poking our noses into those sorts of issues. They are best decided by the school, in the school.” Quite so, but herein lies a problem: as 21st-century centralism tumbles into disrepair, it falls to a party long seduced by the centralied state – from Bevan to Gordon Brown – to come up with something different. The fact that it’s at least vaguely aware of the problem might be a start, but I really wouldn’t hold your breath.

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