Education is a public good, not a consumer good

Accepting market solutions for school improvement is the wrong way to go.

The London-centric education policy community has been in a high state of excitement during 2012 about the so-called middle tier: what kind of organisations should sit between England’s 21,000 state-funded schools and the hanging gardens of the DfE? While ministers wait to see what the market provides and while think-tanks think, Labour has a policy consultation which closes on 10 July and the RSA and Pearson have sponsored an academies commission.

There appears to be a lot of consensus around. Everyone says yes, we need a middle tier, and nearly everyone says yes, it should provide the same roles – school improvement, accountability, ensuring school places and fair access to them.

ATL, however, says everyone is missing the point. In our contribution to Labour's policy consultation, published this week, we say the middle tier debate is characterised by simple but profound misapprehensions.

Firstly, it is taken for granted that most of England’s schools are about to be academies. Newspapers routinely declare that half are already. This is wrong. DfE figures for June show that just 10.49% of England’s maintained schools, are, or have applied to become, academies.

Now we know that Michael Gove wishes the spin to become reality, and more importantly so do the money-people set to benefit from selling off schools, but in reality, the only way the remaining 89.51% will become academies is for the government to step up its ‘forced to be free’ approach.

The financial advantage of conversion disappears next year when the new schools funding system kicks in – research shows this has been the number one motive to convert.  And the academy ideal is highly unattractive to the large majority of primary schools; most are just too small to be viable independent organisations. So nine out of 10 schools still look to their local authorities or diocesan boards for support.

Secondly, although the money-people chase around the country trying to hoover schools into their chains, the large majority of academies remain free-standing. The idea that these free-standing schools are controlled by Michael Gove is risible. There are too many and they are too far from London. No, the problem is they are out of control, with no genuine accountability. I refer you to the Lincoln polo grounds and porn on the school credit card.

Thirdly, and crucially, education is not a consumer good and pupils can’t thrive when it is treated as such. If your cornflakes taste like cardboard you can try another brand next time, but you can’t try a different school each term and expect to get results.

Accepting market solutions as the main driver for school improvement – as in, you fail, you close – means we accept writing off cohorts of pupils as a school goes down hill.

So, finally, to the most substantial gap in the middle tier debate. Education is a public good, not a consumer good. It is a major public service to local communities, and must be run for local communities which means: sufficient place planning to give local pupils access to a local school; a fair and transparent admissions process which reflects the make-up of the local community; an ethos and a curriculum which are supported by the local community; and allowing teachers ownership of what is taught, how it is taught and how is it assessed in order to get the best from children.

We don’t have to wait for the market to come up with a solution. We already have bodies to do this. They currently have over 200 statutory functions. They have, or until recently had, the capacity to undertake all the roles of a middle tier, including place planning and fair access which only a public body can take responsibility for. We don’t need democratic local authorities to provide all services to schools, but they must be responsible to the community for the quality of those services and the spending of public money.

To ATL, this is completely obvious. The idea of replacing them is either ideological clap-trap or a necessary stepping stone to running our schools for profit. And we now know for sure two things: selling off our schools is Michael Gove’s intention and this is profoundly unpopular with the majority of schools, parents and communities.

Martin Johnson is the deputy general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers

 

Year 10 pupils at Burlington Danes Academy in West London. Photograph: Getty Images
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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad