Whether under Labour or the Tories, free schools and academies need to be managed

The education department cannot be expected to oversee more than 3,000 schools. We need local commissioners to act as champions for standards.

Labour has opened up a debate about the government’s academies and free school programme this week. Rafael Behr described it as "neither a capitulation to Gove's agenda nor a ferocious reaction against it." But across the political divide, there is an elephant in the room for whoever wins the next election.

The biggest challenge for both Michael Gove and Stephen Twigg is how to ensure proper oversight of so many autonomous schools. We now have a situation where the Department for Education is required to deal with an under-performing academy, but there are already signs that the department is too remote and overstretched to do so. A handful of civil servants in Whitehall are now responsible for overseeing 3,000 schools, something that was previously done by local authorities.

The academies and free school programme is a force for good. The first wave of academy schools created a series of strong institutions, serving communities that did not have access to high-quality school places. They have helped to transform inner-city neighbourhoods such as Hackney, which were previously mired by sink schools and middle class flight. They build on the progressive principle that the state works best through strong independent institutions serving their local area, free to innovate to meet local needs.

The public education system is richer and more innovative with these new school providers. Free schools such as School 21 in Newham and the Greenwich Free School are adapting their curriculum and delivering classes in new and exciting ways. Where there is a lack of good school places - and that means places of a high enough standard to meet parental aspirations and community expectations - it is right that new schools can be set up.

But the government’s rapid and uncontrolled expansion of academies over the last two years has created a number of tensions that need to be resolved. Twigg has rightly pointed out that the government needs to be clearer about which freedoms are best for driving up standards in schools. It is a good idea to give schools more space to design their school day or the curriculum they teach. But there is little justification for allowing schools to hire unqualified teachers or serve unhealthy school meals.

Ensuring that all schools employ qualified teachers would be a positive move. In the world's top education systems, the best graduates go into teaching. In Finland, teaching is a skilled profession that requires a master's degree, not one for the unqualified. Gove’s decision to give schools freedom to hire unqualified teachers was a retrograde step that will only harm standards.

Last year, 14 of Gove’s new flagship 'convertor academies' fell below the minimum performance target and there have been reports of financial mishandling by academy chains. This is a problem because the government does not have a programme for dealing with academies that are failing or for monitoring the performance of chains. We need a more robust system in place to deal with poor school performance.

The world’s leading school systems all have some sort of 'middle tier' of governance between central government and a school headteacher. This middle tier is important for monitoring standards, managing the local schools market, and providing a mixture of support and challenge to help schools improve. In Canada it is done by a local schools superintendent, usually an outstanding headteacher that has been promoted to oversee schools in their area. In a report published tomorrow, IPPR recommends that England should follow a similar model by creating local school commissioners. These would be education experts, appointed at arms length by local authorities, who can monitor and support schools to improve. They would act as champions for parents and standards, with statutory duties to respond to parental demand and to intervene to tackle failure or under-achievement.

Free schools and academies have the potential to transform the school system but they need more robust oversight, with proper systems in place to deal with poor performance. Creating this effective middle tier will be a key challenge for whoever wins the next election. 

Jonathan Clifton is a senior research fellow at IPPR. @jp_clifton  

Boris Johnson with Toby Young and pupils at the opening of the West London Free School on September 9, 2011 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jonathan Clifton is a senior research fellow at IPPR.

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.