Labour’s existential crisis over school structures is almost as old as the academies movement itself. Invented by the Blair government as a solution for failing schools that needed something other than the medicine offered by ailing local authorities to improve, academies have gone from being a phenomenon quietly cheered by the party’s base to the root of all evil in the education system.
It’s not hard to see why. School standards may be up, as the government often reminds us, but the academies sector is represented by a near-constant stream of negative headlines, accusations of fraud and foul play, financial failure and questions over transparency.
The recent collapse of trusts like Bright Tribe and WCAT spring to mind, but many in the sector fear they are just the tip of the iceberg.
On Sunday, the day before she set out her plans for school structures, Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, received cheers when she told a Guardian Q&A at the Labour Party conference that she would “turn her back” on Gove’s reforms. Her plan, when she outlined it in her speech to the Labour party conference on Monday evening, wasn’t a complete volte-face, but it was what many in the education sector have been waiting for Labour to do for some time: address the elephant in the room.
Labour’s education team has been agonising over the problem of the “middle tier” – the accountability regime in between central government and schools – since Gove’s rapid expansion of the academies programme began in 2010, and the same ideas have been floating around for years.
Let’s not forget that Lucy Powell, Rayner’s predecessor, told the Labour party conference in 2015 that “there will be no more free schools and academy chains will made accountable”. If that sounds familiar, that’s probably because Rayner said something very similar on Monday night.
However, while the sentiment behind Rayner’s main proposal – more powers for councils and individual schools, less for academy trusts – may not be new, her intervention is still significant, and neatly brings together some of Labour’s greatest hits with a few new releases at a time when people were starting to lose patience with vague answers about the party’s plans.
It’s been more than three years since leadership contender Jeremy Corbyn first proposed a National Education Service in 2015. But apart from the extra funding, universal free meals for primary school kids and return of the education maintenance allowance announced last year, the country was hazy about what it would mean for schools.
In some ways, the policy is still up in the air; despite the fact Rayner announced some interim proposals for the first few years of a Labour government, the long term ambitions aren’t entirely clear yet. An important but easily overlooked element briefed by the party this week is its long-term plans for a local and democratic regulatory framework. It is under this slightly vague-sounding umbrella that all schools, academy, maintained or otherwise, will eventually fall.
But by the sound of it, that’s a long way off. The party is planning another consultation, having just finished its first on the principles of the National Education Service, and probably won’t have much to say about its endgame for a few years, providing it remains in opposition.
In the meantime, though, the announcements in Rayner’s third party conference speech gave us a much firmer view of what Labour will do in the intervening years if it forms a government after the next election.
For starters, under these new proposals academy trusts will have their wings clipped. No more autonomy over admissions – councils will be in charge of that again. No more spending money with private companies linked to governors (the ban on related-party transactions will also apply to local authority schools). No more CEO salaries of more than 20 times that of the lowest-paid in a trust. And every school would have to pay staff based on national rules.
Furthermore, as mooted by Powell in 2015, there will be no more Free Schools, and the process by which local authority-maintained, or “community schools”, are converted into academies, either by force or by choice, will come to an end.
At the other end of the scale, cue the rebirth of the “local education authority”. Sort of. With new powers over admissions arrangements and school place creation, along with the ability to take back academies from failing trusts, councils will have a much greater role to play in schools under a Labour government.
Even parents and teachers, who have through the Free School programme had the right to open their own schools, will continue to be involved, through co-operative schools – a rare type of community-run school with similar freedoms to academies, but which have to follow the national curriculum and answer to councils.
All this comes together to form a blueprint for the education policy ambitions of Labour’s first few years of government (once the necessary legislation is rushed through).
What the policy doesn’t do is explicitly pledge to bring all academies back under local authority oversight within a particular timeframe. This is something the powerful National Education Union and many party activists want, but is just too tricky to do all at once, given that 72 per cent of secondary schools and 27 per cent of primaries are academies.
So while the plans to eventually bring all schools under a local, democratic framework may well achieve the same endgame that the local schools lobby wants to achieve, it’s going to happen much more slowly than many would want it to.
In Rayner’s own words, Labour wants to “use our time in government to bring all publicly funded schools back into the mainstream public sector, with a common rulebook and under local democratic control”. This is almost certainly deliberately vague, but what is clear is that some kind of local body, rather that Whitehall, will be in charge once Labour has worked it all out.
Simply put, Labour’s plans for academies are a pragmatic compromise between the wishes of trade unionists and the party grassroots to see all schools quickly back under council oversight, and the reality that town halls aren’t ready for the responsibility.