Whispers from Westminster

9th October 2015 at 00:00
Labouring over academies

Jonathan Simons, head of education at thinktank Policy Exchange, writes about policy and education

ABOUT THIS time last year, in Birmingham, I found myself wandering down the road chatting to two ostensibly normal young women, who were almost giddy with excitement. In terms normally reserved for sightings of film stars, they informed me breathlessly that the previous night they had indeed been at a party attended by Grant Shapps.

That’s right, folks. As I write, I find myself slap-bang in the middle of party conference season; an 18-30 holiday for those who prefer Hegel to Hooch and clapping to clubbing. I’ve just returned from sunny Brighton, where Labour have finished, and the Tories are about to start in (probably rainy, based on past experience) Manchester.

The main story from Labour’s bash in education terms was a move to “bring all academies and free schools back under local control”. That was the headline in shadow education secretary Lucy Powell’s pre-conference interview with this magazine. And in his inaugural leader’s speech, Jeremy Corbyn was unequivocal: “Every school accountable to local government through local education authorities.”

But, actually, Ms Powell’s own conference speech set out a vision where local government would “ensure sufficient places and fair admissions, and have the ability to intervene in any school that is failing…to encourage collaboration in communities of schools and for all schools to work with their local communities to drive up standards”. At least four of those five elements already exist within local councils’ roles. And in her TES interview, she was explicit: “Academies and free schools will remain.”

There remains, therefore, a considerable degree of uncertainty as to exactly what existing academies or free schools (legally the same thing) might look like under a Labour government, and the extent to which they would remain independent.

The best way to understand the differences between Ms Powell and Mr Corbyn (both pictured) is that they reflect different strains of thought within the broad Labour movement. Both share an attachment to what the Fabians termed “municipal socialism” – the use of local government to advance social policy. But the Corbyn approach says this can work only with local ownership as well as oversight (ie, the return of old-style local education authorities).

The Powell approach, by contrast, sees councils as important because only local government is close enough to effectively oversee schools (as opposed to Whitehall). Her approach is less concerned with who runs such schools.

There’s a risk, of course, in over-interpreting these early statements. In effect, there is no fixed position within the Labour party at the moment on this or indeed much else in education policy. Party conferences at this time in the electoral cycle, let alone when the leader and shadow cabinet are all new, are about painting broad brush strokes rather than announcing fine-grained policy.

Maybe we’d be better off spending more time having a drink with Grant Shapps.

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