Labour messages for the local elections – education still matters

As we move into the county council election campaign, putting together a strong message on education is not easy. As more and more powers are stripped away from local authorities, the temptation to not pay much attention to the issue is strong. As Labour is in opposition in most county councils, that temptation can be all the greater.

There are however some strong messages that should be put forward and areas where even opposition councillors can make a difference.

Most obvious is a root and branch opposition to any expansion of selection. We don’t yet know exactly what the government is planning but we do know there will be some councils and some individual schools who want to pursue this. Labour groups should be opposing this at every opportunity and should be encouraging and supporting any local campaigns. The key message should be to remember that most children won’t go to selective schools and their opportunities will be seriously damaged.

Local elections are obviously an opportunity to highlight national issues. One will be the newly announced Labour policy on primary school meals paid for through VAT on private school fees. Other obvious ones are the growing teacher shortage and the savage cuts to school budgets. In many county areas, local Tories will be up in arms at the failure of the government’s funding formula to deliver increases for their schools. It’s important for Labour to be clear that the problem is cuts in the overall funding for schools rather than the formula. On this issue, the article by Martin Johnson in the current issue of Education Politics is a must read (https://socedassoc.files.wordpress.com/2017/03/education-politics-march-2017.pdf).

It is really important to remember local authorities still have the responsibility to support and promote high standards in schools that are still LA maintained – which in many cases will be most primaries.

Perhaps more important, though, is to assert the duty of the local authority to be the advocate for parents and children. Even where local authorities no longer have any formal power, they do have a moral right and duty to use their influence and their democratic mandate to stand up for local communities against central government, over-mighty academy chains and that minority of schools that put their own self-interest above that of all their pupils. This could mean for example:

–          Identifying any need for school places and brokering deals with appropriate organisations to try and ensure that new places and schools are in the right place and are consistent with the values of the authority and local people. Don’t wait for the EFA to dump something on you if possible.

–          Seeking to persuade schools to collaborate in areas such as professional development and school improvement

–          Making sure the needs of vulnerable pupils are met and that all schools contribute to meeting their needs. This means a joint approach to SEN, placing excluded pupils and so on.

–          Being prepared to challenge schools that are not performing well enough or that are not acting fairly over issues such as admissions, SEN and exclusions. Local authorities should be prepared to take issues to Ofsted, the Regional Commissioner or the Schools Adjudicator and demand that they take action.

–          Keeping an eye out for financial mismanagement and other failings in academy chains. This would include free schools where there is no need and where buildings are inappropriate.

–          Working with local unions to promote local solutions to teacher recruitment and retention, workload etc. Unions will be a valuable source of local intelligence about what is happening on the ground

In many cases local authorities can’t say simply “we will pledge to deliver this” in relation to schools. But still councils can wield influence even within current constraints. Even a minority group can spot and raise issues, pressure Tory majority groups and get local publicity for issues and concerns. And by doing so they help to make the case for the restoration of a coherent public education service properly accountable to local communities

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