Education White Paper.
I am writing to express some deep concerns about the proposed direction outlined in the recent education white paper.
State provision of education with a role for local accountability has been one of your party’s political achievements, enshrined especially in the 1902 and 1944 education acts. Although local authorities have not always acted as efficiently as they might, and we cannot live in the past, there were very good reasons why some of your predecessors believed in the local accountability of public services; those reasons are still as democratically relevant and ethically germane today as they were back then, in fact more so given some of the recent mismanagement of finances in the corporate sector. Contrary to Nicky Morgan’s recent assertion (17th March) it is not “abundantly clear” that academy freedoms result in greater equity and raised standards, the evidence is very mixed. The MAT proposal carries inherent contradictions that endanger both local choice and the values that our education system ought to be leading the world with.
‘Bureaucracy’ has been deployed by government as a pejorative term by which to damn the performance of local authorities, but a level of bureaucracy is a necessary feature of providing linked up services enabling fair opportunity for all to access them. Local authorities did not tell schools what to do but provided them with services and advice, much of which in my experience was innovative and responsive to local heads. Local authorities had a history of providing some great advice in diverse domains from the cultural, to humanities and the sciences. Historically free, much of this expertise has been dissipated by the rise of markets in consultancy that adds increasing costs to schools. Academy trusts do not necessarily mitigate against this because there is a real danger that the best teachers are taken out of the classroom to be ‘sold on’ as consultants to partner schools.
In addition, we are ending up with an ever more centralised system, having to be ‘policed’ from Whitehall through its funding agreements and franchised out to trusts, some of whom I suspect will be angling to make profits from their involvement. (An experiment that in Sweden has widened social divisions, not narrowed them). The values pursued by the private sector are not always those virtues that a fair and equitable public education system seeks to honour.
As a recently retired school governor, public servant, and researcher, I know of cases where academy schools that are free from local oversight can start to play fast and loose with agreements that have been established for very good reasons. For example, beginning to exclude young people who are too ‘difficult’ to handle. Local authorities have progressively less and less authority and resources to monitor and place these young people. I have spoken to local authority officers who no longer have oversight of the whereabouts of young people who are ‘lost’ to the school system. We should be fearful about the future access to services of young people with special needs that local authorities by and large do a very good job in supporting, including the provision of transport to school. In some other cases, schools employ relatives to undertake ICT contracts without going through proper tendering processes. There are examples where less qualified staff are being employed in teaching roles, where pay and conditions are used not to reward staff but to enforce rigid and punishing teaching schedules. These may be isolated examples, but are indicative of the kinds of trends that can incur within institutions that are driven simply by data and financial imperatives, not the needs and stories of the young people behind the figures.
The evidence is unequivocal, it is good and excellent teaching that drives up standards, not school structures per se, and the white paper threatens to sideline local authority, universities and OFSTED’s roles in driving up teacher capacity. Since the last Labour Government schools have already enjoyed many flexibilities to extend the school day and innovate in the curriculum. What often stops them is not local government interference but fear of falling foul of inspection regimes and trying to conform to an increasingly narrow range of attainment targets. For example, many authorities are now closing their outdoor education services and centres because they can no longer afford to run them and they do not fit the current narrow educational thinking. Yet as a society we will complain about obese children glued to their tablets while those parents who can afford to do so will be able to offer their children the extra-curricula activities. A similar picture pertains in music and arts support.
Some eighty percent of schools are already good or outstanding, the administrative upheaval involved in being forced to adopt an academy sponsor could have a serious impact upon their efficiency. As academy trusts grow there will inevitably be a shrinking of the ‘market’, as chains become bigger and take over others. Officers within these chains begin to command unreasonably high salaries and draw public money out of the system. This is already happening. Some of these larger organisations are liable to become just as sclerotic as your party believes local authorities to be.
Thus there are potentially socially divisive impacts in the white paper underscored by a serious threat to the worthy democratic ideals of your localism agenda; parents and communities are now potentially sidelined from involvement in school governing bodies and the assets of community schools are signed over to trusts who act more as corporate bodies rather than publicly accountable ones. When things go wrong it will be the Secretary of State who intervenes and reassigns these assets and not locally accountable politicians, or concerned parents. We will not have a public education system but a series of markets that has to be regulated from the centre. As a former higher tax payer I would have been quite prepared to be taxed more to secure a public sector that offers ‘joined up’ services and values our young people as part of a shared community.
I thank you for your time in reading this letter and I hope that you will be able to urge your colleagues to focus on standards of teaching within a locally accountable framework rather than waste scarce resources on unnecessary structural reforms.