One of this Government’s most consistent themes – and George Osborne’s driving mission – has been the decentralisation of power from Whitehall. Are his latest school reforms consistent with this programme?
There are two conflicting points of view. The first sees plans for universal academisation as a devolution of power to individual schools and academy chains. This was the argument put forward by Nick Gibb, the schools minister, on Newsnight.
Academy powers include control over the curriculum and staff pay.
Opposed to this are local government figures who see it as a centralising measure, with local authorities replaced by “unelected and remote civil servants” in London.
Not only do critics deny that this represents any advance in localism, there is also fierce debate about the function of academies and the intentions behind the new policy.
Tory councillors, for example, worry about the fate of small rural schools if an academy chain deems them unviable, and worry about the loss of democratic oversight.
Some critics also wonder what this latest step will achieve, claiming that it won’t improve education outcomes. They claim that schools face challenges of ‘capacity’, which more accountability will not solve.
Gibb argues that universalisation is essential if the academy model is to be most effective. It works best when good schools can transmit best practise to struggling schools – which requires good schools to be part of the system.
This is the logic for forcing successful local authority schools to convert, which was the main point of contention in the Newsnight interview.
Other advocates also claim that, far from being a distraction, this represents a necessary step to tackle the very capacity issues critics are talking about, as well as streamlining school funding and oversight for failing schools.
They also make two important points about the idea of “democratic accountability” in local authority schools.
First, there’s not much evidence of councils being held politically accountable for poorly performing schools. The ups and downs of local school performance seldom presage any change in the party balance at the next local elections. So such accountability is more theoretical than actual.
Second, they argue that there is a conflict of interest if councils are supposed both to champion the interests of the users of services and provide the services – especially if the council fears that it will be punished at the ballot box for providing poor services.
If local authorities are truly meant to hold local schools to account on behalf of parents and taxpayers, it makes sense to remove this strong disincentive.
Battles over education are not new to this Government. Much of this latest wave of opposition comes from the usual anti-reform interests of the education sector, most visibly the National Union of Teachers. Meanwhile local authorities have historically opposed any and every reform which might diminish their power.
But with tensions in the Party running high due to the European referendum, the very last thing that Number 10 needs right now is another blue-on-blue confrontation.
Nicky Morgan and her ministers should do all they can to address the concerns of good-faith Tory critics. This will improve the policy, help Party unity, and allow them to concentrate on the hard-bitten opponents of progress trying to exploit this backlash.