Let’s recap. The government, which has long supported academies, publishes an education White Paper in which it is proposes that all schools should become independent. Other features include a different role for parents via “parents’ councils”, a role for groups setting up new schools, and an increased push on turning low-performing schools into academies. This White Paper is pretty controversial, with immediate opposition not only from unions but also from the government’s own MPs. And yet the plan is to turn it into law.
So far, so familiar. Now let’s roll the story on. Let’s imagine a scenario in which the government doesn’t back down on the more controversial elements. Rather, the education secretary (“encouraged” by No 10 and No 11) introduces a bill into Parliament containing them. The whip count suggests that more than 100 backbenchers might rebel. Then an “alternative White Paper” is produced – backed by nine former ministers and, it is rumoured, some of the Cabinet – which takes a different approach, rejecting independent state schools and emphasising collaboration over competition. This alternative document is hugely popular. More than half the government’s backbench MPs publicly endorse it.
The education secretary squabbles publicly with her party. Media attention is intense. Under pressure, the prime minister agrees to limited concessions but is adamant that the main provisions of the bill will not be amended. It is far from certain that it will pass. Except, suddenly, the opposition swing into action. They support the bill. So, despite mass rebellions by government backbenchers – including the largest ever rebellion against that party – the bill is passed into law. All schools can now become independent.
Here’s the thing. Everything I have written above actually happened. But all of it took place in 2005 and 2006. Higher Standards, Better Schools for All was the White Paper. The government was a Labour one. Tony Blair was the prime minister and Ruth Kelly the secretary of state. David Willetts was the shadow secretary of state who convinced the Tory party, under David Cameron’s new leadership, to vote through the bill. And the independent state schools were both sponsored academies and “trust schools” – a forerunner of academy converters.
The parallels between this fight 10 years ago and today are striking. Rereading the White Paper from 2005, you can see common themes emerging that are still reverberating a decade on. And three things really jump out at me.
First, education reform is always controversial – even though many of the apocalyptic warnings made against it aren’t justified (this White Paper was also castigated as privatisation and the end of the comprehensive system).
Second, education reform cuts across party lines.
And third, there was a time, just two Parliaments ago, when a Labour prime minister would put all his authority on the line and whip his party in favour of an all-academised system. But then, when Gordon Brown became prime minister, he let the whole idea die a slow death. There’s a lesson there, too.
Jonathan Simons is a former head of education in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit under Gordon Brown and David Cameron