The education landscape that councils will face will be radically different in 2015.
1,500 academies and 24 free schools are in place already, and the possibility is that most secondary schools will be academies by the next General Election.
I have yet to meet anyone who wants to see the tide reversed to a situation where schools are effectively run by town halls. However, there is a deeper question, which the Government seems to be ignoring of what role local government – in its widest sense – can play in areas such as commissioning, extended services, ensuring fair admissions and raising standards.
Bizarrely, despite the claims by both Michael Gove and Eric Pickle to be in favour of devolving power and local accountability, the Government is seeking to hoard control at the centre.
Gove and Pickles’ clumsy reforms – they are the Laurel and Hardy of politics today – mean that the school system is increasingly centralised and dogmatic. All new schools are now funded through central seven year funding agreements and are only accountable to ministers and civil servants – not local families or elected representatives. At the same time, new schools are exempt from the changes to the curriculum, and in the case of free schools can even hire teachers without any qualifications.
While Michael Gove likes to attack councils as the “enemies of promise”, I believe in working with local authorities to improve education.
When I worked on the London Challenge as a minister from 2002 to 2005, we saw standards rise quicker in London than the rest of the country. Some of that was about schools becoming academies. But it was also about collaboration with local councils, about providing additional support and services and building a sense of mission about raising achievement.
The international evidence backs up the idea of having what academics like to call a ‘middle tier’ in education. It is all too easy for ideologues to dismiss this as a layer of bureaucracy. But in countries from Singapore to Finland, we have seen the importance of this tier in driving performance.
Having a proper process whereby schools can learn from and be judged against each other in a fair way, where collaboration between quite different schools can be enabled, and where best practice is spread across the system is more likely to succeed than centrally imposed structural changes.
Ultimately though, it is the quality of learning that happens inside the school – the quality of the teacher and what happens in a classroom that is much more important than the type of school.
So I am very interested in the work that is happening in many English schools and communities, particularly the work that is being done to narrow the gap between children from poorer and richer backgrounds.
It is critical that local councillors have a role in Labour’s policy review – and I hope many will contact my office to suggest ideas and thoughts as this moves forward.
Of course it is not just about school provision. I am interested to hear what is happening on the ground with budget reductions on children’s centres, how councils are responding to the Munro review in terms of safeguarding, and how we can improve and strengthen youth provision.
Too much power is being concentrated in the hands of the Education Secretary. Let us consider the future role for local authorities – as commissioners of school places, as advocates for children, especially the most vulnerable and as champions for parents and local communities.
I want to ensure that as a Labour party, we support true localism to enable parents and families to help us give the next generation the best possible start.
Stephen Twigg MP is Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary
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