The white paper setting out the government’s plans for schools in England has caused a stir – and not just from the usual suspects. Parents, governors, influential Tories, even arch loyalist Toby Young are objecting. This may be a new variation of the masochism strategy used by politicians who want to look bold and courageous. Or it could be that ministers have seriously misjudged the public mood.
As a veteran critic of the academy model, I can’t deny a smidgeon of satisfaction at hearing concerns about centralisation, patchy quality, loss of freedom, reduction in parent choice and the anti-democratic nature of coercion coming from the mouths of people who have slavishly supported this wrong-headed policy for the past 10 years.
It was never necessary to create this type of legal structure to give schools a “fresh start”, though Labour’s academies did at least have disadvantaged communities at their heart. The current intention is far from that. It is also far from its own stated aim. Schools will not be liberated under this plan. They will be ensnared in a way most never envisaged.
A short-term goal is 4,000 chains running every school in the country, possibly reducing to 1,000 chains in 10 years. It means loss of independent legal status for all schools, the end of school governance as we know it, and multi-academy trusts able to top-slice millions from the budgets of schools that will be no different from branches of a supermarket.
Then there is the scope for more of the questionable practices used at the Durand and Perry Beeches “edu-businesses” and a massive land grab of local authority property to speed this happy process along. No wonder the usual loyalists are wary.
So what will happen next? If legislation is necessary, there is the possibility of rebellion and amendment. The abolition of parent governors will certainly be challenged, though what will be the point of elected parents if there are no governing bodies and schools are controlled by what the chair of the Tory 1922 committee, Graham Brady, calls “distant and bureaucratic” organisations operating across geographic regions?
It is possible that powers to coerce won’t be needed. If enough schools convert with the fear of compulsion hanging over their heads, egged on by the elimination of local authority duties and a national funding formula, it may lead to a tipping point. This is surely the plan.
Some schools may hang on and pray for a change of government – this is how some grammars survived the onset of comprehensive education. But that could also be a reckless choice in the current political climate. These will be hard decisions for many governing bodies.
Last week John Tomsett, headteacher, blogger and member of the Heads’ Roundtable, published a letter from a parent urging him to find an alternative model for academisation to safeguard the ethos of their school. In response he offered to try to create something more acceptable than the current corporate vision. Many people around the country will no doubt share that sentiment.
Assuming the Tories are not going to back down altogether, there are several changes that would make this policy more tolerable. The element of coercion should be removed – as Young says, this is more Stalinist than Conservative.
The principle of local schools working together, with continuing scope for parental involvement, should be paramount – the white paper seems overly preoccupied with breaking up local relationships.
Land ownership should also stay local and schools should be allowed to form “umbrella trusts” in which they retain their independent legal status within charitable trusts that can provide services and oversight. Finally there needs to be a more open and devolved process for approving new school trusts and for holding them to account – the “middle tier” question.
Decisions about the ownership and management of academies and free schools have been taking place behind closed doors in Whitehall for years. My colleague Laura McInerney’s battle to get information into the public domain demonstrates just how much ministers and officials fear the spotlight and the views of local people. Suspicions about commercial and vested interests will intensify unless the process becomes more transparent and collegiate.
Where will the leadership for this come from? Reshaping the existing blueprint is more likely if there is a serious Tory rebellion. But it would be good to see Labour step up to the plate.
Too many people in the Labour party, including the leader [pdf], seem to think we can travel back in time and reinstate the local education authority of the 1980s. That isn’t going to happen. There may be a role for councils in the future but the post-2010 changes have gone so far that any new government will have to start with what it inherits.
I don’t think anyone really knows how the next few years will play out, but Labour should seize this moment swiftly to show it is a party of forward-looking ideas, take the harsh Tory vision for education and reframe it is as something more democratic, local, principled and, judging by the scale of the potential opposition, more popular.