The spirit of Blairite triangulation is alive and well in the most unlikely of settings: Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. Or is it?
Labour wants to “move on” from asking serious questions about whether the system of control favoured by ministers for all state-funded schools in England is right because parents don’t care whether their child’s school is called an “academy” or not.
This was the implication of brief reported comments by Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, in an interview last week. They seemed at face value to underline disappointingly the recent unwillingness of any of the major parties to look closely at the dramatic – and possibly era-defining – structural changes schools have been going through and their real meaning for pupils and parents.
I say this despite what seems at first glance a very welcome Labour conference statement by Ms Rayner setting out the principles on which its approach to education would be based, including “empowering parents and communities to influence change where it is needed”.
Yet Ms Rayner’s reported argument last week, perhaps reinforced in her conference speech when she said that Labour’s National Education Service would not be “just another structure”, seemed to be a reinforcement of the old “standards not structures” line from the New Labour era. Then, it was argued that the details about how a school is governed should not matter when what most members of the public care about is what actually happens in the classroom.
The latter is, of course, transparently true. If a school is operating well, for most people the background details setting out how it should be run will be exactly that: tedious minutiae.
The issue is, however, what happens when academy trusts fail.
I have been writing about the academies policy since its inception. I must have fielded hundreds of tip-offs from teachers, governors and parents about problems in the system since 2010, with two inter-related grievances as common themes.
The first is that the academies model – which centres on a privately-agreed contract between central government and the trust or company running the school – can write the public out of any sense of real accountability when things go wrong.
I have watched as staff members, for example, have found themselves routed round the houses of central government and trust when making serious complaints. Ministers have also pushed for parents to be given no meaningful input in the governance of academies. Academisation decisions can be made, seemingly irreversibly, before any public consultation.
The second is concern about small groups of people being allowed to control the governance of these state-funded schools, sometimes with budgets running into the tens of millions but subject to only remote oversight by a seemingly overworked central regulator. This is the common factor behind most on the seemingly never-ending list of academy scandals.
Fifteen years after the first academies, with little good evidence that the policy overall improves quality, the question surely still needs to be asked: is this the right model?
That question remains even though Angela Rayner did say she was rightly concerned about making the academies structure more accountable, addressing fiascos such as the recent handing back of 21 schools by the Wakefield City Academies Trust. Indeed, if local accountability did come in at a meaningful level, it is debateable whether we would still have academies as originally conceived.
The changes England’s schools have been going through are momentous. It is widely acknowledged, for example, that academisation removes local democracy from the running of state schools.
Less widely appreciated is the sense that academies see schools effectively removed from the democratic process entirely. A minister, for example, in practice faces no comeback from a local electorate if taking a decision about a school which may be unpopular with a local community. The Regional Schools Commissioners structure, the lack of transparency of which has been exposed so brilliantly by Tes, in which local people have both no stake and not even the right to attend meetings or read about them in any depth, underscores this removal of schools from traditional democratic processes.
Is ministers’ favoured model, with academy chains competing with each other for favour among pupils, the right one for our schools, given possible side effects such as the squeezing out of vulnerable pupils as trusts chase the better results on which their reputations depend? Is that model, with its seeming focus on the needs of a more-or-less privately controlled trust, the best one? It is amazing that a left-Labour party would not be alive to such concerns. I am glad that the education statement to the conference addresses the issue that schools must be focused on – and accountable to their communities.
Still, the statement does not mention the word “academies” directly. Yet, as someone who’s been investigating and thinking about on-the-ground problems with the policy since its inception, the sense of untouchability around academisation among most of the national political establishment – which has certainly existed until now – seems bizarre.
Academisation, which is facing problems from a seeming lack of sponsors willing to take on challenging schools to widespread criticism of the RSC structure, seems like an open goal for someone wanting to take a really rigorous, from-first-principles sceptical look. It is to be hoped that Labour’s statement might yet be the start of that.