Michael Gove arrives at Downing Street ahead of the weekly cabinet meeting on February 4, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

We need Directors of Schools Standards to make academies work for all

Michael Gove has centralised power without any kind of mediating local tier between schools and the government. 

One of the great paradoxes of public service reform is that when politicians say (and often think) they are handing power away, they end up centralising more of it. The NHS reforms were trumpeted as pushing power down to GPs and patients, but ask most people in the system and they will tell you that the centre in the form of NHS England is now more powerful than ever. Similarly with schools: Michael Gove heralded his academies and free schools reforms as a triumph for local institutional autonomy and removing the dead hand of the state control. And yet because of his determination to remove local authorities from any meaningful role in schools, Gove has ended up creating a Napoleonic system in which half of all England’s secondary schools are directly accountable to the Secretary of State. 

This problem has been described as the so-called "missing middle", with too much power held in the centre without any kind of mediating local tier between schools and the government. This has led to three problems. First there has been poor place planning because local authorities have no powers to force academies to expand where there is demand, and because free schools have been opened up in areas where there is already a surplus of places. Academies can also open sixth forms without reference to wider local needs.

Second, there are problems with the monitoring of quality and performance, with a distant department for education struggling to monitor outcomes and ensure proper processes are being followed by hundreds of academies and free schools. This has been most visible following the problems at Al-Madinah, Kings Science Academy and the Discovery Free School, which have hit the headlines for poor provision soon after receiving government approval to open. Ofsted inspections are too infrequent and the department is too remote to be on top of what is happening in particular schools. There is no proper system in place to deal with failing academies or academy chains.

Third, there is a lack of transparency about how decisions are made. Parents and communities find their schools being taken over by new providers without any consultation. The decisions about who runs schools are taken behind closed doors by mysterious "brokers" appointed by government ministers.

This is why David Blunkett’s review of England’s school system published today is so welcome. Blunkett acknowledges that free schools and academies are here to stay, but rightly argues that they need proper transparency, planning and oversight. He backs IPPR’s proposals to decentralise many powers currently held by the Secretary of State to locally accountable figures responsible for raising school standards. These Directors of Schools Standards would be independent figures responsible for schools across a number of local authority areas. They would be responsible for holding all schools to account on behalf of local parents and would have powers to intervene in cases of failure. They would also hold open competitions for new schools, following local authorities assessment of where places are required and proper consultation with local communities In this way the proposal tackles the three major problems I identify above.

Beyond this, Blunkett envisages the DSS to have a role in promoting school improvement by brokering collaboration between successful and struggling schools, as was promoted through the successful London Challenge programme.

Importantly, Blunkett proposes to extend the powers academies currently have, such as to vary to curriculum and the length of the school day, to all schools. This is surely right: what is good for academies should be good for all schools. All schools, regardless of their legal status, would have the same freedoms and would sit under a single framework of local challenge and coordination.

Hemmed in by internal debates and facing an ideologically assertive Tory Education Secretary, Labour has thus far failed to project a clear and compelling agenda on education, which was once its signature policy issue. By making this move today the party has taken a major step forwards, but there is still much to do. The relationship between the new system for schools and reforms to post 16 education, where our biggest challenges lie, needs to be thought through. And, in the face of a broader Govean assault, Labour has yet to flesh out a wider educational alternative, articulating what kind of skills and knowledge our young people should learn in a modern post-industrial economy. 

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation

Getty
Show Hide image

Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.