Mark Lehain is Interim Director of the New Schools Network, and Founder of the Bedford Free School.
At a Labour Party conference fringe event yesterday, Angela Rayner said that she would “turn her back” on Michael Gove’s education reforms. While this rhetoric will certainly play well with her party’s membership, I want a lot more detail on how she would actually implement changes.
Labour’s school policy has a number of key themes: no more academies created, either through council-run schools converting or free schools being opened; current freedoms for existing academies reduced or removed; all schools brought under Local Authority oversight and into the planned “National Education Service”. Let’s examine each in turn.
It will be easy enough for a Labour government to halt academisation. Around half of England’s pupils are in academies, and a new government would simply stop issuing academy orders or approving free school applications. Allowing councils to open and run new schools would require legislation – but presumably a Corbyn government would push that through soon enough.
However, there is still a growing pupil population to contend with. We know from experience that councils prefer to expand existing schools rather than create new ones. It’s cheaper for them and, funnily enough, Heads don’t like upstarts coming along to compete for students. This could lead to a situation where not enough new schools get opened and existing schools just get significantly bigger. Is this really what parents or teachers want?
If nothing else, it seems unnecessary, considering that we have a really effective means of opening new schools at the moment. The free school policy has been running for the best part of a decade, and they are pretty successful so far: they were the top performing type of school at GCSE in 2017, and are more likely to be judged Outstanding by Ofsted. If the programme were to be cut, it’s only fair to ask what the replacement would look like.
Ironically enough it will be “co-operative trust schools”, another Blairite invention that was originally used to replace grant maintained schools but maintain some of their advantages. The fact that Blair very quickly abandoned this and opted for the academy trust model speaks volumes. I’m not sure why these benefits will be any greater now, and given that councils don’t have any school improvement capacity to speak of anymore, one has to wonder how Labour expect new schools to be supported.
Now let’s consider the proposed changes to academy freedoms. After all, autonomy for Heads was the reason why governments of all stripes in the last 40 years have increasingly moved control from councils into schools. Rayner has said that she’d re-impose national pay scales for staff, a cap on top salaries, and allow councils to determine admissions policies (not individual schools.) She’s also previously said Labour would force academies to follow a government-defined National Curriculum. This really would be turning her back on Gove’s reforms.
The devil will be in the detail, but my guess is that many academy Heads would find the changes very restricting. There is also the question as to why mandarins in Whitehall are best placed to work out a “fair” salary for jobs in, say, Whitehaven.
However, many education reformers wouldn’t oppose being admissions handed back to local authorities, on the grounds that schools shouldn’t be able to sway who applies to them. I can see the attraction but when one considers how passionate families are about being able to have choice of school, and that lots of people could lose out if major changes were made, I think it could actually be pretty controversial in practice. Just look at the furore when Brighton introduced a random ballot for school places a few years back, and families found themselves having to cross the city to get to their allocated place.
Finally – the planned National Education Service. I’m fascinated by this idea. Let’s be honest, in some ways we’re not too far from that already; while the Government talks of a “school-led system”, it is increasingly tempted to interfere and direct schools operationally. The idea of regional accountability, and of bringing all schools under the NES’s remit is intriguing – but the details are simply not there yet and the potential for unintended consequences great.
More importantly, Blair and Adonis created academies in such a way as to make it very difficult to “renationalise” them. Remember, academies are independent charities, in charge of their own articles of association. The contracts they have with government are seven year rolling ones – and can only be altered if both parties agree. What if they don’t agree to changes? Lawyers will be rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of judicial reviews and the like. Half the country’s kids are now in academies, and the potential chaos and distraction is huge, so it’s quite likely that they will continue to exist as distinct, albeit more regulated, entities within any such NES.
Overall then, for a party readying itself for power, we’re still waiting for the all-important details as to how they will actually implement their policies. Families and teachers deserve to have these before they are asked to vote, so I hope Labour can reveal these, sooner rather than later. After all, if Rayner is going to turn her back on Gove’s reforms, we at least need to know for sure which way she will be looking instead.