As the White Paper falls apart, Labour needs to come up with a new settlement for schools.

The proposals in the recent White Paper seem to be falling apart at a quite remarkable speed. As Tory local authorities and backbenchers queue up to condemn its plans for complete academisation, we hear that the DfE is frantically searching for some alternative that it can claim is not a wholesale U turn.

At education questions today, Morgan and Gibb responded with their usual flannel about devolving decision making to the front line and with their usual dodgy statistics. They did however come out with a new one (to me anyway). Schools must become academies so they can share their good practice with others. I have to say it is news to me that local authority schools are forbidden to work with other schools but if the Secretary of State says so, it must be true …. I suppose….

The latest suggestion, in the press today, is to allow “good local authorities” to form their own multi-academy trusts. Despite Osborne and Cameron asserting that the days of local authority control of schools will be over. And despite the fact that being an academy chain would give a local authority far more power than they’ve had since 1988 – the power to appoint all the staff, to set budgets and hold back any money they like all without being bothered by annoying governors.

But much of the criticism of the White Paper is of the “I’ve nothing against academies; it’s the compulsion I don’t like”. That is something that needs challenging. One thing the government is right about is that having two entirely different systems for running schools makes no sense. But their answer is the wrong one. The academy model is fundamentally flawed because:

  • There is no evidence that academies do any better than maintained schools.
  • Schools should be rooted in and accountable to their local communities. This is not just about “throwing out the rascals” at elections. It’s about taking decisions close to the communities that are affected and having schools governed by representatives of that community not by remote sponsors or civil servants.
  • Academies involve more bureaucracy not less. Every school has an individual legal contract with the DfE and has to comply with charity law and company law. It has to manage its own HR, health and safety, accountancy, audit, purchasing and compliance with a myriad of regulations and instructions from government.
  • The so-called academy freedoms are illusory. All headteachers are free to manage their schools – including staffing and budgets – as they see fit within the law. All schools, including academies, are constrained in terms of the curriculum by the demands of testing and examinations. Increasingly governments have imposed through legislation additional duties and constraints on academies.
  • Academy chains are private organisations concerned fundamentally about their own success and survival rather than the interests of pupils and families. So, schools are moved between chains and chains close down or merge without any reference to the communities they supposedly serve
  • Central government can’t supervise thousands of schools from the centre. This has become increasingly apparent and has been pointed out by both the select committee and the Public Accounts Committee.
  • As a result the scope for abuse has been huge. We have seen financial scandals, excessive exclusions, abuse of curriculum freedoms, manipulation of admissions, refusal to accept pupils with SEN and self-aggrandisement by empire-building headteachers. Not everywhere but on too many occasions to be acceptable.

It’s great fun to watch Tory plans falling apart. But that’s not enough. We’ve said we want to restore local accountability. We’ve said we want schools to be able to focus on teaching and learning rather than unnecessary bureaucracy. We’ve said we want proper planning of school places and fair admissions.

So it’s time that Labour began to argue for a new settlement that applies to all schools and:

  • Gives local authorities the responsibility and the power to plan school provision in their area, to ensure fair access for all and to monitor both standards and compliance with the proper standards of public life.
  • Empowers individual schools, frees them from the central control of academy chains and enables them to develop their own ways of working together while ensuring that all schools have the support that they need.
  • Gets rid of the absurd and incompetent bureaucracy of the Education Funding Agency, funding agreements, limited companies and charitable status, replacing it with a simple consistent model of public service governance and regulation
  • Ensures that the voice of parents and local communities is heard in all schools.
  • Gives schools as much freedom as possible consistent with meeting the needs of all their pupils and their whole community.
  • Establishes a consistent structure of national regulation that applies to all schools.

This would be a solution that will put behind us the absurd battles over school structures. There is of course the argument that structures don’t matter and you can find good teaching anywhere. But actually bad structures get in the way. They waste time, energy and money. They make the system less fair. They cause fragmentation when the need is for collaboration and planning. They enable teachers to work effectively and local people to have a stake in their children’s schooling. The reality is, if structures aren’t right, standards won’t be either.



3 Comments on “As the White Paper falls apart, Labour needs to come up with a new settlement for schools.”

  1. Don Berry says:

    I agree entirely with the need for Labour to argue for a ‘new settlement’ along the lines suggested and would add that it should facilitate the kind of Inter-agency approach to meeting the needs of children and families that the last Labour government’s ‘Every Child Matters’ attempted to bring about.
    Unfortunately Labour’s continuing obsession with a narrow, limited view of the role of schools, it’s own accommodation with centralisation (eg Tristram Hunt’s comment about not ‘fetishising democracy’) and academies (as the Tories keep reminding us, a Labour innovation and one embraced by local authorities like Manchester) doesn’t make me confident they are anywhere near addressing this issue in a meaningful (never mind radical) way.

  2. Gary Brooke says:

    Taking away ‘own admissions status’ and requiring academies to actually follow the admissions code, by law, would level the proverbial playing field. In addition, the business of academies, and not just the schools, should be inspected. They should not be protected by commercial confidentiality. After all, they receive public money and should be held accountable to the public. At present, admissions status privileges and commercial secrecy must surely be an inducement to some MAT sponsors.

  3. bassey355 says:

    Well said, John. I’m sure many of us will agree totally.

    On my website is the text of a booklet “Our schools’ system is in crisis: what Labour could do”. I suggest power should be transferred from the Department of Education to a National Education Council (NEC). This is envisaged as an expert body, independent of but funded by government, composed of teachers, union representatives, parents, academics, politicians, business and professional people, and charged to redesign our education system as both child friendly and future looking. Its members must be fully committed and well supported by research teams and a competent secretariat. These are the people to make educational decisions for the nation – not here-today-and-gone-tomorrow ministers!

    A second booklet, which I have sent to every MP, entitled “Education: filling pots or lighting fires?” lists nine crises facing our schools. [] These are problems that Labour should be ready to act on as soon as in power again.
    Crisis 1: ACADEMISATION Among other problems deprives schools of a large number of well-established services, currently provided by local authorities and especially important to small primary schools.
    Crisis 2. Over a quarter of English children at 10 and a third at 12 express a dislike for going to school.
    Crisis 3. Teachers are oppressed by an excessive and stressful paper-dominated workload outside teaching hours.
    Crisis 4. There is a growing shortage of qualified teachers, especially in maths, English and science.
    Crisis 5. Most primary teachers are opposed to the amount of testing required by government: schools are becoming “exam factories” they say.
    Crisis 6. The National Curriculum is overloaded with factual material. It is obligatory in local authority schools, but not in academies.
    Crisis 7. There are increasing numbers of children in schools but local authorities are not permitted to build new schools.
    Crisis 8. Teachers’ pay is falling in real terms with the 1% cap. Research shows that performance-related pay is wrong for cognitive workers like teachers.
    Crisis 9. OFSTED acts to enforce Government policies and in the process terrorizes many teachers.

    I put some of this on Labour’s YourBritain website on 25 March. But I have the same fear as you, John, that our Party is not sufficiently focused on the problems of our schools.