School partnerships covering local areas are needed to protect vulnerable schools and pupils from market forces, a former education secretary has said.
Estelle Morris told a conference, to launch the Association of Education Partnerships, that increased school autonomy had produced a fragmented system that neglects the interests of the wider community.
She said: “We are building a school system that has no recognition of geography at all. No recognition of locality.”
The partnerships, which take different forms in different parts of the country, have been created to provide the “glue” to help schools in the same area work together in the best interests of their community.
Baroness Morris, who was Labour education secretary from 2001-02, warned that “if you don’t have a partnership in a geographical area, the market dominates”.
She said that while schools in England had become “sharper, better and stronger” because of competition, “if there’s nothing else in your town, your city, your county, the rules by which schools will operate are market principles".
"If you do that, who stands up for vulnerable schools? Who stands up for the vulnerable pupils?”
Baroness Morris told the conference that while policymakers may think that multi-academy trusts and teaching school alliances have solved this problem, “that’s not the way I see it when I talk to schools in different areas”.
She cited an “old-fashioned belief” that every teacher should have two obligations: one to pupils in their school and another “that is a collective obligation to serve every child in your area”.
She added: “At its moral base, I think, for me, it turns into 'you do want your school to be better than anyone else’s, but as a teacher and a professional, you don’t want that to be achieved at the expense of someone’s failure’.
“At the moment, the system makes that impossible to do.
“It makes it very, very difficult for schools in a locality to deliver that obligation as a professional to serve collectively the needs of all children in that area. How do you do that when there is no glue that holds you together?”
There are other efforts being made to reduce the damage that can be caused by competition between schools. A charter is currently being drawn up for primary schools to pledge not to put too much pressure on pupils to pass their Sats.