The March 2016 education White Paper draws to a close a century of local-authority engagement in education with some of the most radical changes to the structure of education ever seen.
By 2022, all schools will be national schools, centrally funded by the secretary of state for education, but franchised to school-operating charities. Local councils will have limited responsibilities: to ensure a school place for every child, to co-ordinate the admissions behaviour of school groups, and to secure the provision of services for children with special educational needs.
Perhaps the surprising thing is that local education authorities have traditionally been bastions of conservatism. Established in 1902 in Arthur Balfour’s Education Act, their role in education was entrenched by Rab Butler’s 1944 Education Act.
Lady Plowden, the author of the 1967 report that transformed English primary education, was the wife of a Conservative local councilor. Theresa May was once chair of education in the London Borough of Merton. Yet somehow, since then, conservatism has lost patience with localism in education.
Change began in the 1980s. Kenneth Baker established centrally funded grant-maintained schools and city technology colleges, which bypassed local authorities. Later, under Labour, the model was adapted to shape a new form of urban school – the city academy. The centrally funded academy was born.
The White Paper is riven with contradictions. It talks about a school-led system, but its chosen policy lever is the multi-academy trust or MAT. In the MAT world, power will move away from individual schools to clusters of schools with combined purchasing power, operating models and brands. Despite the evidence that community engagement with schooling drives effectiveness, power will move decisively away from parents, as the governing body is abandoned and replaced by a non-executive board made up of “appropriately skilled” individuals. Power will also move away from communities, as assets are transferred from local authorities to new legal entities that will operate schools. Indeed, in cases of failure within and across MATs, assets may be transferred by the secretary of state to new providers.
These power shifts signify the most radical reshaping of education governance since 1902. If this White Paper is fully implemented, then the current secretary of state for education, Nicky Morgan, will become the most radical reformer of English education for a century.
There is no doubt that the White Paper will have an impact even without legislation. With 80 per cent of schools in England rated as good or outstanding by Ofsted, this is – by any measure – something of a gamble. Schools face the prospect of several years of administrative and regulatory upheaval. Ofsted itself will lose its power to make judgments about the quality of teaching – even though the global evidence is strong that the quality of teaching drives outcomes at school level. University schools of education will lose their role in conferring qualified teacher status, despite worldwide admiration for England’s approach to partnership in initial teacher education.
This is a decisively centralising White Paper, placing most of the power in the hands of the secretary of state. The sands have shifted. The localism of the past, with its belief in local government and in parents, has been replaced by a faith in the corporate leadership of MATs.
It’s difficult to see that this system can be established without chaotic upheaval, and equally difficult to see a straight line to improving outcomes for children. What those early 20th-century Conservatives would have made of it all is anyone’s guess.
Professor Chris Husbands is the vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, and the outgoing director of the UCL Institute of Education