John Richards, for many years a senior civil servant, writes an open letter to the new Secretary of State for Education
DEAR Secretary of State, May I congratulate you on your appointment and offer my best wishes? You are, of course, the second Catholic holder of the office and of a different political persuasion from the first. However, I am not writing to you on specifically confessional grounds, although I find it in my heart to hope that you have consigned to the swing-bin your copy if you ever had one of the Carlton Club political committee's document on the dual system.
It will, I trust. be reassuring that the purpose of this letter is not to press an agenda upon you or to call for urgent action in this educational area or that, although it would be heartwarming if your endorsement, as chairman of the ministerial committee on women, of an expansion of nursery provision were now to come to full fruition.
Only too many others will be pressing for instant action in many directions as you reach your desk for the first time. On the contrary, my respectful advice is that, for some months, you do as little as possible (if by "doing" we mean enacting further change in the education service).
This leads me immediately to your greatest merit in the eyes of that service that you are not your predecessor and, if one is to believe what one hears, remarkably unlike him in several ways. I don't wish to speak ill of your colleague, the new Home Secretary (not least because, at my age, it would be both inconvenient and unpleasant to land up in detention), so let us simply say that his most fervent admirer would scarcely identify as his dominating characteristic a gift for genuine and generous consultation.
1 believe that you would reap huge dividends of goodwill and support within the system if it became apparent, following your assumption of office, that the flow of imposed change had been slackened or even dammed. In different parts of the service, among teachers, students, authorities, parents, children, there are exhaustion. resentment,
bewilderment. confusion, stemming from ongoing changes of goal, function, methodology, principle, organisation and institution. You have nothing to lose and much to gain by willing a "breather" and meeting the main interests (or, as they used to be called, partners) with an openness of mind and discussion.
But on one specific issue, perhaps the most central, may I offer slightly more detailed comment? At present a Secretary of State presides over an education system. Whether this will he true by the time your government has run its course depends largely upon the policies you apply in the next few years. One lot of received wisdom has it that a "successful" Secretary of State will ensure that, by the time of the next general election, the majority of schools, county and voluntary, have "opted out".
If this indeed happens, I doubt if there will be a system over which you or your successor can preside. An enterprise, maybe, an undertaking, perhaps, but not a system.
In the mythology or demonology of some of the groups with whom you will be familiar, the demonstrable advantage of opting out is that schools are thereby released from malign county hall or city hall interference. At best, this is an incomplete picture; at worst. a grave distortion. If you doubt this, you might find it illuminating to browse, for background interest, through some of your department's older files which chronicle one or other kind of planning and co
ordination by local education authorities of different aspects of provision in their areas.
The best of these will reveal a breadth of concept, an ingenuity. a local wisdom, all operating within the limits of usually tight resources, capital and recurrent. which may amaze you.
My point is that, if you see total or near total opting out as your Holy Grail (and I hope you don't), you have got to devise a new way of providing the plant (for lack of a better word) which a local authority based system has hitherto provided. in order to achieve coherence. The easy part, given the money and the will, is to establish an efficient bureaucracy to finance and monitor a massive growth of grant-maintained schools.
But where are the coherence, the reconciliation. the balancing, the pattern to come from? Not surely from the centre. particularly under a government committed to less Whitehall direction? And I am sure that you are much too shrewd to assume that we are going to match the best practice of our European partners through a congeries of delivery points, however brilliant in parts. merely financed and monitored from London.
I must not presume further. The summation of my modest advice may be found in Talleyrand's exhortation to one of his diplomats: "Pas trop de zele." Do go easy for a time. Truly, there's much to ponder.
Yours sincerely, John Richards John Richards was Under Secretary of State as the Department of Education and Science from 1973 to 1977.