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

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The biggest divide in politics is not left against right, but liberals against authoritarians

My week, including a Lib Dem membership rise, The Avalanches, and why I'm putting pressure on Theresa May over child refugees.

It is a boost for us that Nick Clegg has agreed to return to the front line and be our Brexit spokesperson. I hadn’t even had a chance at our meeting to make him the offer when he said: “Before we start, I’ve been thinking about this and want to take on the fight over Europe.”

With Labour apparently willing to give the Tories a free pass to take us out of Europe, the Liberal Democrats are the only UK-wide party that will go into the next election campaigning to maintain our membership of the EU. The stage is remarkably clear for us to remind Theresa May precisely what she would be risking if we abandon free trade, free movement, environmental protection, workers’ rights and cross-border security co-operation. More than a month on from the referendum, all we have heard from the Tories is that “Brexit means Brexit” – but they have given us no clue that they understand what that means.

 

Premature obituaries

Not long ago, the received wisdom was that all political parties were dying – but lately the supposed corpses have twitched into life. True, many who have joined Labour’s ranks are so hard left that they don’t see winning elections as a primary (or even a desirable) purpose of a party, and opening up Labour to those with a very different agenda could ultimately destroy it.

Our experience has been happier: 20,000 people joined the Liberal Democrat fightback in the wake of the 2015 general election result, and 17,000 more have joined since the referendum. We now have more members than at any time this century.

 

Breaking up is hard to do

Journalists have been asking repeatedly if I want to see the break-up of the Labour Party, with moderates defecting to the Liberal Democrats. I have been clear that I am not a home-wrecker and it is for Labour to determine its own future, just as I focus on advancing the Liberal Democrat cause. Yet I have also been clear that I am happy for my party to be a home for liberals of whatever hue. I enjoyed campaigning in the referendum with a variety of progressive figures, just as moderates from different parties shared platforms in 1975. It struck me that far more unites us than divides us.

That said, not all “moderate” Labour figures could be described as “liberal”, as John Reid demonstrated as Labour home secretary. The modern political divide is less left v right than authoritarian v liberal. Both left and right are looking increasingly authoritarian and outright nasty, with fewer voices prepared to stand up for liberal values.

 

What I did on my holidays

Time off has been virtually non-existent, but I am reading A Wilderness of Mirrors by Mark Meynell (about loss of trust in politics, the media and just about everything). I’m also obsessively listening to Wildflower by the Avalanches, their second album, 16 years after their first. It’s outstanding – almost 60 minutes of intelligently crafted dialogue, samples and epic production.

During the political maelstrom, I have been thinking back to the idyllic few days I spent over half-term on the Scottish island of Colonsay: swimming in the sea with the kids (very cold but strangely exhilarating ­after a decent jog), running and walking. An added bonus is that Colonsay is the smallest island in the world to have its own brewery. I can now heartily recommend it.

 

Preparing for the next fight

The odds are weirdly long on an early general election, but I refuse to be complacent – and not merely because the bookies were so wrong about Brexit. If we have learned one truth about Theresa May as Prime Minister so far, it is that she is utterly ruthless. After her savage cabinet sackings, this is, in effect, a new government. She has refused to go to the country, even though she lectured Gordon Brown on the need to gain the endorsement of the electorate when he replaced Tony Blair. Perhaps she doesn’t care much about legitimacy, but she cares about power.

You can be sure that she will be keeping half an eye on Labour’s leadership election. With Jeremy Corbyn potentially reconfirmed as leader in September against the wishes of three-quarters of his MPs, Mrs May might conclude that she will never have a better chance to increase her narrow majority. Throw in the possibility that the economy worsens next year as Brexit starts to bite, and I rule nothing out.

So, we are already selecting candidates. It is vital that they dig in early. As we are the only party prepared to make the positive case for Europe, such an election would present us with an amazing opportunity.

 

Sitting Priti

David Cameron pledged to take an unspecified number of unaccompanied children from camps across the Continent. I am putting pressure on Theresa May to turn that vague commitment into a proper plan. Having visited such camps, I have been fighting for Britain to give sanctuary to a minimum of 3,000 unaccompanied children, who are currently open to the worst kinds of exploitation. We have heard nothing but silence from the government, with underfunded councils reporting that they are not receiving the help they need from Whitehall.

Meanwhile, it remains government policy to send refugees to Turkey – whose increasingly authoritarian government has just suspended human rights protection.

As if all of this were not grim enough, we have a new Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, who has said that she thinks aid should be used largely to promote trade. As someone who wants our country to be respected around the world, I find this plain embarrassing. Actually, it’s worse. It’s shaming. As with Europe, so with the world: the ­Conservative government is hauling up the drawbridge just when we need more than ever to engage with people beyond our shores.

Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats. To join the party, visit: libdems.org.uk/join

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue