What will a Labour government do about local school systems?

ShortsThe typical picture now is of local fragmentation, spreading academies and chains, pseudo-autonomy of schools under Gove’s dictatorial control, and local authorities trying to bring some coordination with decimated budgets and support staff writes Richard Hatcher.

Labour’s answer is spelled out most fully in a 66 page Review of education structures, functions and the raising of standards for all: Putting students and parents first, known for short as the Blunkett Review, published on 30 April.

Its solution to Gove’s dictatorship is the creation of a new post of Director for School Standards. The DSS would be appointed jointly by several local authorities in a sub-region from a list of candidates approved by the Secretary of State for Education. The DSS would be responsible for ‘driving up standards’ in all schools in his or her area, including academies and free schools.

Yes, academies and free schools would continue under Labour, including control of chains of academies by private organisations like E-ACT and AET, regardless of how discredited they have become and the repeated evidence that their schools are no better than local authority schools when compared like for like. The Review promises ‘freedom for schools to choose to join Trusts, Federations or Sponsor Chains but also to be able to leave them’ (p27). But there is a huge obstacle to schools freeing themselves from academy sponsors: the majority of governors are appointed by the sponsor. It is likely to require campaigns by parents and staff to force them, similar to those against becoming academies in the first place.

A new grammar-secondary modern division at 14

Labour also takes over uncritically the Tories’ concept of standards as measured by test scores and international PISA comparisons. The real issue isn’t across the board standards – 79% of schools are graded good or outstanding by Ofsted – it’s social inequality holding back schools in poorer areas. About this the Blunkett Review has a brief mention and no answers, but another recent Labour report, an 8 page ‘draft consultation paper’ called Education and children does have an answer – a dangerously wrong one which will exacerbate social inequality in the school system.

The problem, it says, is lack of skills for economic growth. The solution is a Technical Baccalaureate – vocational education for the 50% who don’t go to university, taking place in FE colleges rebranded as new specialist Institutes of Technical Education, and leading to an apprenticeship or ‘skilled work’.

What is being proposed is a new bipartite system which will strongly reproduce patterns of social class inequality. There will be a division at 14 with the ‘academic’ 50% going on to sixth form to take A Levels and enter higher education. The other 50% will follow the Tech Bacc leading to an apprenticeship if they’re lucky, or to a low-pay, low-skill, casualised, temporary or zero hours contract job, or a workfare programme in a labour market that doesn’t need them.

The Director for School Standards is responsible for school places and new schools

The DSS is responsible for planning school places and setting up new schools through a process of competitive bidding open to ‘All trusts (including community trusts), partnerships, chains, parent groups, diocesan authorities and social entrepreneurs’. Schools opened and run by parent groups is simply the Coalition’s free schools rebranded as ‘parent-led academies’. And ones run by ‘social entrepreneurs’ would also be no different from some Coalition free schools.

Notably, this list doesn’t include local authorities, though an internal PLP Briefing on the Blunkett Report into school standards: local oversight, challenge and support for all schools says explicitly ‘David recommends allowing Local Authorities to once again bid to open new community schools, scrapping Michael Gove’s policy which only allows new academies or Free Schools.’ (p3).This needs urgently clarifying.

The Director for School Standards is responsible for school collaboration to raise standards

The DSS must be empowered to broker collaboration within the local area they lead. … The DSS would intervene where unsatisfactory or inadequate collaboration was evident. (p10). We know that collaborative support among schools is the best method of ‘school improvement’, and it has grown in recent years as local authority capacity has declined. But what powers will the DSS have to ensure effective collaboration among the hundreds of schools in several LAs in her or his area? No team of staff, but money saved from Gove’s lavish spending on setting up academies and free schools. This money would be apparently funnelled through LAs to groups of schools. All of whom would be held to account by the DSS.

The question then is what powers would the DSS have to enforce this? They don’t look that different to Gove’s. For example, the DSS can hand over a school regarded by parents as inadequate to a sponsor (p38). This seems like a continuation of the policy of forced academisation, not, as the Review claims, an alternative to it.

Where would power lie in local school systems under Labour?

Under Labour it looks like power over LAs and schools would remain, just devolved from the Secretary of State in London to the Directors of School Standards in the regions, but still dependent on schools and LAs to implement policy, and therefore on the ability to intervene to apply sanctions. However, there are two potentially countervailing policies in the Review.

One is that the DSS would be an employee of the LAs who have appointed her or him. The question then is, is she or he therefore subject to the decisions of elected local government? If so, this would represent a fundamental break with the centralised policies of the Coalition and the reinvigoration of local councils’ role in education.

The other is the Review’s proposed ‘local Education Panel. This would include representation from schools in the area, parents and relevance Local Authority representatives, who would work with the DSS on the development of a long-term strategic plan for education, ensure commissioning decisions are taken in line with that plan and agree the budget proposed by the DSS.’ (p10). This is the most progressive policy in the Review. It offers the opportunity for genuine joint participation in strategic policy-making by schools, parents and LAs, with the possibility of Local Education Panels widening their membership to include representatives of governors, school unions, and the local community

But the crunch comes if the LA or the Education Panel decides on policies which are unacceptable to the DSS (and therefore to government), whether it is about funding in the context of a Labour government’s austerity budgets, the continuation of academy chains and free schools, the social divisiveness of the Tech Bacc, or other elements in Labour’s social liberal programme. This will be the new local class battleground where campaigners should be mobilising to ensure that Education Panels and LAs maximise popular participation and pressure for progressive education policies that meet local needs.


For more detailed analyses of Labour’s education policies see the Birmingham Campaign for State Education website: http://birminghamcase.wordpress.com/. Also see Hatcher R (2014) Local authorities and the school system: the new authority-wide partnerships. Educational Management Administration and Leadership 42: 3, 355-371.



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