Confessions of a Political Animal

October 8, 2008

Should Transport fear its new Adonis?

One of the little surprises hidden under the big surprise of last week’s Cabinet reshuffle was the musical chairs amongst the lower ranks in the Department for Transport (DfT) and the Department for Children Schools & Families (DCSF). In particular, mildly controversial blogging MP Tom Harris lost the railways brief (and indeed, all ministerial position), with Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Schools Lord Adonis taking his place.

Adonis is, to put it mildly, an odd creature within the Labour Party. I should, briefly declare a prejudicial interest here – Adonis was the author of the most dry and uninspiring text book (now available for an inflation-busting £1.70+£2.75 P&P) on my A-level Government & Politics reading list and ten years on I’m still not quite ready to forgive.

Formerly of the SDP, Adonis, like many other such traitors turncoats Jenkinsites late developers late joiners of the Labour movement, he relied heavily on the patronage of Tony Blair on his climb of the greasy poll, with his ability to articulate and promote the most anti-progressive education policies under the guise of ‘reform’ gaining him extra traction. The disempowering of Local Education Authorities, private sector run academies, top-up fees for Higher Education and (worst of all) being friendly with Chris Woodhead were all initiatives with his name write large upon them.

With Gordon Brown, for all his faults, being far more instinctively Labour than his predecessor, it was  widely expected that the days of Lord Adonis exerting significant influence on education policy would be over, particularly with Brown’s loyal lieutenant Ed Balls heading up DCSF. These expectations were proved wrong when Adonis remained in place, in charge of an ever-expanding academies programme, in Brown’s first reshuffle. If we are to believe the Evening Standard‘s Paul Waugh, this was entirely due to Brown wanting to convince the BBC’s Nick Robinson that he was fully committed to Blair’s public service reform agenda.

Maybe Brown (who name checked Adonis’ academy programme in his conference speech) now considers Robinson suitably convinced, maybe Ed Balls couldn’t abide Adonis’ presence any longer or he was fed up with the noble peer palling around with Boris Johnson, launching a GLA academy programme. Whatever, Adonis is off to the comparative backwater of Transport. The pro-academy opposition parties and academy sponsors have already begun decrying Adonis’ move as the end of the programme, which can only be a good thing if you happen to believe in a democratic, accountable and comprehensive education system – not that I believe for one moment that this really is the end of the road for this decidedly dodgy scheme.

The basic truth, as evidenced by his being the architect of the City Academies programme, is that Adonis is an arch-privatiser. So, he should be happy having ministerial oversight of a privatised railway, won’t he? I’m not so sure. The national railway system is looking less and less like the free market Thatcherite dream envisaged by those who sold it off. I thought it might be worth comparing a passenger rail franchise with a city academy and seeing whether it is still accurate to consider one to be a private company and the other to be part of the ‘state’ education system.

  Rail franchise City Academy
Finance source In the majority of cases, franchises are heavily subsidised by the Treasury. A small number of the most valuable franchises make premium payments to the government. Private sponsors must raise £2m towards the school’s start up costs. The remainder of the funding (normally in excess of 90%) comes from the state. For the first 23 City Academies, just £48.5m of funding arose from private sources, with £607.7m from the state. Funding of running costs also comes from the state.
Provision of fixed infrastructure  Rail franchises pay (at below market rate) to use physical infrastructure provided by Network Rail, a not-for-profit company which is to all intents and purposes nationalised (except if it was nationalised it would break the now-discarded Golden Rule) The school’s buildings and land become the property of the private sponsors, despite their limited investment in them.
Provision of non-fixed infrastructure The DfT in most cases tells franchise holders what rolling stock they can hire and in what quantities. The rolling stock remains the property of the rolling stock leasing company. Its operation is subject to stringent health and safety requirements. The Academy’s private management is entitled to hire teachers of its choosing and in whatever quantities it desires. There is no requirement for Academy teachers to be registered with the General Teaching Council and Academies may opt out of national pay agreements.
Timetabling On key routes, the DfT writes the full timetable (after consultation with franchise holders) to which operators must adhere. On other routes, the DfT sets a minimum service and permits operators to bid to run additional trains.  Academies are required only to adhere to the most basic of requirements of the National Curriculum, such as teaching English, Maths and Science to 16. They are governed by the same legislation as independent schools, meaning that they are free to introduce the governing body’s choice of ‘ethos’ into lessons.
Governance Whilst franchises are free to pick their own boards, their performance is subject to ongoing review by the DfT. Poor performance in terms of punctuality or reliability can lead to the imposition of fines. Sponsors are able to appoint the majority of the governing body, with just one place each guaranteed for an elected parent governor and an LEA representative. There are no sanctions available for unsatisfactory performance, except in extreme cases.
Customer selection Required to carry any passenger who can come up with the correct fare. Academies set their own admissions policies. They are able to easily wriggle out of admitting students with special educational needs. It has been claimed that the high rate of pupil exclusion from Academies represents selection by the back door.
Taking back the keys Franchises are a fixed length, although some have provision for a short extension if performance is good. Prior performance of the incumbent operator can now be taken into account when re-franchising occurs. The DfT retains the right to terminate a franchise early and has done so twice – once over the poor perfomance of the franchisee and once because of concerns about the parent company’s financial status. Ownership and control of the school is passed to the sponsors on a permanent basis. In cases of very poor performance the Secretary of State could close the academy or pass the ownership to another set of sponsors – and the current Secretary of State has threatened to do so– but this is an ad hoc process.

As the above shows, whilst the railways are technically in private hands and city academies are state schools, the government exerts far more influence for its money over the rail network. Will this suit Adonis’ agenda, which is firmly that the private sector knows best and that democratic accountability is an obstacle to excellence? It is true that since the DfT took increased control over the rail network there have been instances of micro-management that have gone badly wrong, but overall it has proved more effective than the more arms-length Strategic Rail Authority regime which proceeded it.

Who knows how Adonis will behave in his new brief? The uncertainty is only increased by the fact that his ultimate boss, Geoff Hoon, is also an unknown factor in a public service department. The horrible feeling remains that Transport is once again becoming the department that is used for dumping those ministers you don’t know what to do with into: Adonis, the ideological enemy; Hoon, the man who was supposed to be going to Brussels, but the by-election looked too dodgy. This is a potentially disastrous mistake: major transport investment schemes are coming to the fore, along with key decisions, such as Heathrow. But with political eyes focused firmly (and understandably) elsewhere, the DfT could again become the forgotten department. I just hope that when attention returns, we don’t find that Lord Adonis has handed over some ‘failing’ inner-city railways lock, stock and barrel to a Tory evangelical carpet merchant for a fistful of fivers.


1 Comment »

  1. It’s partly not wanting him around Education and partly because he has a definite long-term interest in railways. Actually quite a smart move for once and Adonis is, if nothing else, far brighter than most people we’ve had in the DfT recently.

    There’s also nothing more guaranteed to disillusion an arch-privatiser than examining the state of the railways, either, particularly around subsidy. I’m cautiously optimistic, myself, though less so with Mr. Hoon.

    Comment by Tom — October 9, 2008 @ 10:35 am | Reply

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