Developing the National Education Service

Photo: Noj Han
One of the big ideas in the Labour Party’s manifesto for the General Election in 2017 was the creation of a National Education Service (NES), writes Jon Duveen. This idea was given more substance following a consultation within the Labour Party (LP) and the creation of a draft charter for the NES. Whilst there are many good points in the charter, e.g. the principle that education has an “intrinsic” value for all, that education needs to be provided “free at the point of use, available universally and throughout life”, that education should be structured to “encourage and enhance” cooperation, it left many issues out or very briefly touched upon them.

The debate on education at the LP Conference 2018 moved the discussion on some of these issues forward but still left many delegates and those working in or using the education system feeling the proposals were not radical enough to challenge the current orthodoxy in education policy.

In her conference speech, Angela Rayner, Shadow Secretary of State for Education, identified three interim measures that the Labour Party would implement when they became the Government, whilst a ‘new regulatory framework’ is finalised and put in place:

  • Existing academies and free schools will remain, but their powers will be reduced. In a Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) Briefing entitled ‘Schools Policy Announcement – Angela Rayner Conference Speech 2018’ circulated to LP MPs on 24th September, it states that ‘the reformed MATs … would be subject to a common set of rules, set by statue’. Presumable this ‘common set of rules’ includes the curriculum although this is nowhere stated.
  • ‘We’ll end the scandal of individuals and companies profiting from schools they are involved in, stopping fat cat pay for bosses and restoring fair pay for staff’.
  • Related-party transactions between academy bosses and companies they have connections with will be banned’.

These interim measures are to be welcomed and will help control some of the excesses of the academy system. Rayner also said in her speech that ‘We expect that all schools will be incorporated into the new framework by the end of our first term in office’. So we have a time scale, within five years from the formation of the LP Government all schools will be in the new framework.

Does this commitment apply to private and independent schools? Will faith schools be integrated into this new framework on a par with community schools? The LP Conference in 2018 passed a resolution which called for an end to academies and for all schools to come under ‘local democratic control’. However any commitments on the fate of academies and free schools will not only depend on policy passed at conference but also on the pressure CLPs and individuals can put on the NEC and those developing the manifesto for the next General Election.

What framework?

However, it is the ‘new regulatory framework’ that is the most controversial part of this new policy agenda. As yet there is no clarity from the LP on what the ‘new regulatory framework’ will be and so we are left to seek out hints and clues from what Rayner has said. In her Conference speech Rayner said ‘we will use our time in government to bring all publicly funded schools back into the mainstream public sector, with a common rulebook and under local democratic control’. She didn’t clarify what ‘the mainstream public sector’ and ‘under local democratic control’ mean. It might be thought to mean schools would all be integrated into the local authority maintained schools system. But the PLP Briefing makes clear that Rayner does not propose that the ‘new regulatory framework ‘entails a restoration of the role of the elected local authority.

Q: Will all new schools be maintained schools?

A: They will for an interim period, while we transition to a new regulatory framework. We are still consulting on that framework, but expect that it will have space for other school improvers, such as cooperative schools, provided they are responsive to communities and subject to democratic oversight and accountability. (PLP Briefing)

Here local authorities are defined solely in terms of their role of ‘school improvers’, and it is envisaged that other bodies, such as ‘cooperative schools’, could take on that role. It is not spelled out what ‘responsive to communities and subject to democratic oversight and accountability’ means. By using the term ‘publically funded schools’ it would appear that this ‘new regulatory framework’ will not apply to the private sector in education, even though these private schools receive large amounts of public money in the form of tax relief etc.

This concept of local authorities as school improvers signals a continuation of the ‘standards’ agenda that has dominated government school education policy under the current Tory government and its Coalition and New Labour predecessors. Schools have been judged by government performance measures, incentivised by rewards and punishments and policed by Ofsted. ‘School improvement’ has been the name of the game. Rayner’s Conference speech and the PLP Briefing represent a continuation of this policy, not a break from it. The fact that they make no mention of the need to reform Ofsted is symptomatic. It’s a very restricted role for local authorities, and a very narrow vision of education.

One of the problems with the LP policy on education and with the NES Charter, is that it avoids the questions of to whom and how schools are to accountable and what is the role of the community in that accountability system. Before the creation of academies, schools were held accountable to the Local Education Authority (LEA) which were composed of elected local councillors and some co-opted members. This gave some measure of democratic control to the local communities in that they could elect their councillors every few years.

With the extension of the local management of schools policy and the creation of academies the role of the LEAs began to wither and this fitted well into the overall policies of the New Labour, Coalition and Tory Governments. The effect of this has been to reduce the democratic accountability of LEAs and most have now been merged with other functions of local government.

This process of eliminating local accountability for education has moved furthest in the London Borough of Hackney. The key ‘innovation’ of the new Hackney model is that strategic leadership of the local authority school system is transferred from the local authority to the schools, represented by the Executive Board. It is evident that ‘schools’ actually means ‘headteachers’ and they are intended to comprise the majority of Board members. It’s a system run by management.

Such a model could provide the political compromise currently sought by many of those aligned with the self-defined centre and right of the Labour Party. There is an attraction in a genuinely democratic and participatory local elected body specifically responsible for the local school system but that isn’t what many advocates of a new ‘middle tier’ have in mind. Against this removal of democratic accountability of local education systems we need to campaign for the integration of the school system into the rest of elected local government in the form of a reformed, democratised and fully funded local authority school system.

Local democratic accountability

We need to open up a discussion about what local democratic accountability means. The fundamental principle should be that every citizen has a stake in, and therefore should have a voice in, their local school system as well as their local school. Only an elected local authority can make that possible.

But local authorities aren’t very democratic. In fact they are very hierarchical and tend to exclude popular participation in strategic decision-making. So the discussion about a genuinely democratically accountable local school system has to go hand in hand with a discussion about participatory democracy in local government.

The latter is a discussion that the Labour Party has scarcely begun, but a new Labour Party Consultation Paper, ‘Democratic Public Ownership’, published in September 2018, establishes some principles and arguments which are very relevant to local authorities and their role in education.

Public participation in local education policy-making does not mean inappropriate intervention in issues which are properly matters of professional judgement. Nor does democratic participation in local education policy-making imply that public views are inevitably progressive. In both cases it is a question of deliberation and negotiation among public and professionals, and the mobilisation of collective popular and professional support for progressive policies.

The task now is to gain support for these ideas about a progressive and democratic local authority school system from everyone concerned about school education, including the education unions parents, academics and of course those within the Labour Party itself, with the aim of getting them adopted as Labour Party policy as an integral part of a strengthened National Education Service.

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