As the White Paper falls apart, Labour needs to come up with a new settlement for schools.Posted: April 25, 2016
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.