Labour’s education manifesto: academies, local authorities and the rest?

by Professor Richard Hatcher, Birmingham City University

On April 13 Labour published its election manifesto on education, A better plan for education.  It claims that ‘Over the past four and a half years Labour has worked closely with the education and children’s community to develop our Better Plan for Education.’ (p26). To what extent has it taken on board the policies that the NUT has been arguing for, summarised in its manifesto Stand Up For Education?

Of course the NUT isn’t the only organisation that has wanted to influence Labour policy. An alliance of the Campaign for State Education, the Socialist Educational Association, Information for School and College Governors, Forum, Comprehensive Future, the New Visions group and the Alliance for Inclusive Education has published a briefing paper, Improving Schools 2015-20, and has had meetings with Labour leaders. What influence have they had on Labour’s A better plan for education?

Here I want to focus on just one key policy area: the architecture of local school systems that the Tories have established – academies, chains, free schools, grammar schools, and the role of local authorities.

A comprehensive school system?

This is of course a non-negotiable principle for the NUT, and Improving Schools 2015-20 is also unequivocal: ‘All secondary schools should be comprehensive, with no academic selection.’ Labour’s response is regrettably equally unequivocal: they have no intention of interfering with the existing grammar schools for fear of the political backlash it would provoke from the Right. That is why there is not a word of mention of selection or grammar schools in their entire 26-page document.

Academies, free schools, chains and local authorities

The NUT’s Stand Up For Education says ‘We need to mend a fractured education system’ and calls for an end to the Free Schools programme, the right of all schools to become local community schools, and oversight of all state funded schools to return to local authorities (p11). The position of the Improving Schools 2015-20 briefing paper is as follows:

‘Having separate systems for managing local authority schools and academies is confusing and a waste of money. So is having schools with different rights and responsibilities….

There should be one set of regulations covering all state funded schools. There should be a single funding system that properly meets the needs of all pupils wherever they are in the country.’

The key demand here is unequivocal: ‘There should be one set of regulations covering all state funded schools.’ But the logical implications of this need explicitly drawing out. It means both regulations regarding funding and, crucially, regulations regarding the constitution of academy governing bodies, including those in chains. They must be no different from the constitution of local authority schools. This means that sponsors will no longer have the right to appoint governors. And that means that schools will no longer be controlled by sponsors, whether they are individual academy sponsors or academy chains. It follows that schools would be able to continue to be part of a chain, including paying them for services provided, but it would be a voluntary partnership, just like any other partnership that schools may have, which they would be free to join or leave as they chose.

Improving Schools 2015-20 continues:

‘There should be one administrative system (mostly locally based) covering all schools – this would be cheaper and easier to understand.’

‘Decisions about opening or closing schools should be taken locally. Those making these decisions should be elected locally to do so.’

This is rather a weak formulation because it deliberately avoids using the words ‘local authority’. Presumably there are some among the organisations supporting Improving Schools 2015-20 who are not in favour of re-establishing a common local-authority-based school system. There is a real danger here that it opens the door to less democratically accountable alternatives, as we will see below.

What then does Labour’s A better plan for education say about these issues?

It is critical of the performance of many academies and Free Schools

‘Simply changing the structure of schools, turning them into academies or setting up new Free Schools, has failed to deliver high standards. Free Schools are failing at a greater rate than other schools, one in five academies is underperforming and whole areas have been left to languish.’ (p10)

Labour promises no more Free Schools: ‘Labour will end the underperforming Free Schools programme and the wasteful practice of building schools in areas without a shortage of school places.’ (p12). But it says nothing about bringing academies and existing Free Schools into a common system of regulations. They will continue to exist with their separate system of governance, and private organisations will continue to run academy chains, controlling their schools through the appointment of a majority of governors.

As Tristram Hunt said in his speech at the ASCL conference on 20 March: ‘Now do not mistake me: chains can be an incredibly important architecture in a school innovation system.’ The only change he said he would make was to enable ‘good schools to ‘float off’ from poor chains’ through ‘shorter contracts with clearly defined break-out clauses.’

Far from curtailing Gove’s legacy of academies and chains, A better plan for education proposes more of them, commissioned by the proposed new sub-regional Directors of School Standards:

Directors of School Standards will also be responsible for commissioning new schools where there is a local shortage of places, encouraging innovative bids from established providers, good local authorities, parents, teachers and entrepreneurs.

Note that this includes existing chains (‘established providers’), new chains (‘entrepreneurs’) and also parents. These are Labour’s so-called ‘parent-led academies’, which are simply the continuation of the Free Schools programme under another name

Where do local authorities fit into Labour’s scenario?

Labour’s A better plan for education makes a number of references to local needs and local accountability. But, like the Improving Schools 2015-20 statement, it deliberately avoids naming local authorities as having the leading role:

‘Labour will introduce local accountability and high expectations in every area and for all schools.’ (p6)

‘Most of all it requires a shared local mission to turn things around.’ (p11)

‘each local area will agree its own ‘Standards Challenge’ – an area-wide school improvement plan including a new public target for raising standards and attainment locally, for which the Director of School Standards will be accountable.’ (p11)

It is clear that it is the Director of School Standards who will play the leading role. The DSS will be responsible for an area covering more than one LA. But how will ‘a shared local mission’ be created? How will a ‘local area…agree… area-wide school improvement plan’? Who will participate in drawing it up? What role will elected local government play? And teachers, governors, parents, the whole community? What structures and processes of deliberation will enable it? On all these questions Labour’s education manifesto is silent.

If the responsibility is not to be that of local authorities, revived, including all the local state-funded schools, and democratised to enable the participation of all stakeholders in their local school system, then who? Labour’s silence, and Improving Schools 2015-20’s ambivalence, opens the door to several problematic alternatives. One is a new elected body for each LA area but separate from the LA itself. The major disadvantage is that it would create a barrier between education and the rest of local government, when in fact services and policies need to be more effectively integrated.

Another option would be the creation of a new supra-LA body, covering several LAs and run by Labour’s Director of School Standards. It could be in effect the education ‘department’ – with the DSS as director of education – of the new Combined Authorities (exemplified by Greater Manchester) which are in the pipeline whoever forms the next government. The grave danger here is of even less democratic participation and accountability, partly because of scale (for example, the proposed West Midlands CA, covering six LAs, would have around a thousand schools) and partly because CAs are highly centralised and bureaucratic – the Greater Manchester CA is run by just the ten council leaders and an elected mayor, with no equivalent elected assembly or scrutiny committees.

What strategy for the future?

It seems impossible to avoid the conclusion that on these issues the hopes of the Improving Schools 2015-20 alliance that they can influence the education policies of the Labour leadership have come to nothing. Whoever forms the next government, it seems that the key policies that will have to continue to be fought for are:

  • The integration of all state schools into a common system of regulations, including funding and governance constitution. This entails the removal of control of state schools by private organisations running chains of academies.
  • The integration of all state schools into local authorities.
  • The democratisation of local authorities to enable the participation of all local stakeholders in the formulation of local education plans and the accountability of schools.
  • The end of selection and the transformation of grammar schools into comprehensive schools.

The failure of the strategy of influencing Labour education policy through negotiation with the Labour leadership raises a fundamental question about this strategic orientation for progressive education reform, which has been pursued ever since the (partial) introduction of comprehensive education. Will this strategy, even if it has failed to influence Labour election manifesto today, have some success in the future if it is pursued, perhaps once Labour is in government, or perhaps if it is not elected?

Or does the strategic orientation itself need reconsidering? Is a shift towards a strategy based on building a public movement for change through mass campaigning required, complementing the NUT’s orientation to ‘social justice unionism’, as exemplified by the recent campaign by the Chicago Teachers Union in alliance with the local community?

Richard Hatcher,  13 April 2015        Richard.Hatcher@bcu.ac.uk

Further reading

On the role of the Director of School Standards see Hatcher R (2015) Labour’s new education policy document: tensions, ambivalences and silences. Forum: for promoting 3-19 comprehensive education. 57:1, 11-14.

On an empowered, democratised and properly resourced local school system see https://reclaimingschools.files.wordpress.com/2014/12/for-a-democratised-local-school-system1.pdf

On Combined Authorities see https://reclaimingschools.org/2015/04/05/combined-authorities-do-not-rebuild-democracy/

On Chicago and social justice unionism see New teachers’ union movement in the making and Lessons in social justice unionism, from Rethinking Schools

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