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25 April 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 12:13pm

The government’s academy angst has united local government leaders in opposition

The truth of Cameron’s Conservatism is a distrust of local democracy, a disdain for frontline public sector workers and a preference for centralised power with Whitehall puppeteers.

By Tulip Siddiq MP and Chris Percy

It takes a lot to make Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem local government leaders unite. However, in a widely-reported move last month, their highest level representatives did just that.

You would be forgiven for presuming that their joint rallying call was against cuts to local government budgets, or Jeremy Hunt’s mismanagement of our Health Service, but this time their concern took root in the Chancellor George Osborne’s announcement on Academies.

Though it is true that the last Labour Government introduced academies in 2002, almost everything but the name has changed since then, including the level of education sector support for the policy. Labour’s approach was to take failing local authority schools away from local authority management, before injecting new funds, providing the necessary sponsorship and support to take things in a new direction.

The Coalition Government chose to dramatically expand the academy programme, believing that autonomy from local government was the key driver of improvement, as opposed to the use of money or support. This was painted by Michael Gove as an ideological belief in freedom and free market forces, although a few eyebrows were raised at the suspiciously close fit to an austerity agenda and the alignment with David Cameron’s “get something for nothing” Big Society, which hopes to replace public sector services with unpaid volunteers.

It seems however that autonomy is not what it once was. The Conservative Government has now announced that all schools will be forced to become academies by 2022. The problem with empowering people to choose is they don’t always choose what they should. Legislating their options down to one neatly solves that dilemma. The irony was not lost on the sector, and the National Union of Teachers invoked a strike ballot in response.

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Why is the Government doing this? You could be forgiven for thinking the sceptics were correct at the start, that this is austerity by the backdoor. After all, the Tories are failing to hit their own ill-conceived budget targets (Osborne missed by 5% of GDP in 2015 and it has worsened since) and they have repeatedly u-turned on cuts when people realise just how discriminatory and offensive they are (for example on disability allowance in 2016 or tax credits in 2015).

Unfortunately, the academy scheme won’t help the Treasury, as it is will cost both money and enormous amounts of time. Conservative Minister Edward Timpson has admitted that academy conversions so far had cost almost £60k per school and took an average of seven months. Local authorities also report costs of over £10k per school in admin and legal fees. While the Government hasn’t produced detailed costs for the new scheme, if you simply scale up the £66k spent per new academy by the Government so far, you’re looking at some £1bn in unfunded commitments.

Given the shaky financial basis for the announcement, perhaps you might think instead that the Government is motivated by an unwavering faith in free market forces to improve schools.

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If this is the case, the Government is ignoring the reality that this policy is incompatible with free market principles. Free markets need the buyer, in this case parents, to be able to evaluate a range of options and then choose the best one. The best schools then need to be able to expand to take on the new demand. That way, good schools are rewarded and grow, while weak schools, rather than being supported and invested in, are required to go bankrupt (with a blind eye to the ensuing damage to local communities).

In the UK, many parents cannot act on their school choices – good schools are simply too full and unable to expand as required. In some London boroughs, barely half of parents get their first choice of school. Instead parents must exercise their “choice” through the purchase of property near the schools they want – analysis by Lloyds Bank suggests house prices are 9% higher, just for being near a good school. All this free market energy, instead of going into rewarding teachers and funding school expansion, is going into fuelling UK house prices and regional inequalities.

There’s also precious little evidence that the new academy policy is driving school improvement. Research published by the LSE is cautiously positive in its analysis of Labour’s first academy policy. For students with four years in an academy, they saw a 16% better chance of getting 5 A*-C at GCSE. But remember, that was the policy that focused on investing in failing schools. The Coalition and Conservative policy, while confusingly given a similar name, has focused on outstanding schools and removed the majority of extra support. It’s too early to comment with confidence, but it’s not looking positive that this drives improvement as successfully as the 2002 policy.

So if it’s not really about school improvement through market forces and it’s not really about saving money, why is Nicky Morgan pursuing this so vigorously? It certainly isn’t for political gain or the stabilisation of the Tory party during a tricky EU referendum year. Quite the opposite. The recent academy policy has attracted Conservative backbench criticism for some time, most recently by the chairman of the 1922 Committee, Graham Brady.

This is a high risk political move; which brings us back to the unusual cross-party alliance of local government leaders.

Their letter criticises the anti-democratic approach of replacing locally elected oversight with “unelected and remote civil servants” and raises concern that the hoped-for school improvement won’t materialise.

But we think this letter is more than that; councils are conscious of deeper tides. According to the IFS, central Government cuts have led to 23% less in per-person funding in local authorities over the Coalition Government. The situation is set to worsen over the current Government.

At this rate, local authorities will become quite different animals. Rather than vibrant, local democracies, exploring new policies that suit their communities, they become contract managers for essential basic services like rubbish collection, bus services and social housing.

Losing education funding and an education remit could be a tipping point for local councils.  In response to demand from their schools, imaginative local authorities are experimenting with ways to continue to support their future academies as a local community of schools, such as Camden’s Schools-Led Partnership. But with Whitehall trends against them, they face quite the challenge.

The truth of Cameron’s Conservatism is a distrust of local democracy, a disdain for frontline public sector workers and a preference for centralised power with Whitehall puppeteers – and an apparent veneer of free market ideology to keep the party faithful smiling. The high risk political reward they’re after is the end of autonomy in local Government. Schools are pawns for this greater prize. For the sake of the local kids (and we’re all local somewhere), we hope they fail.

Tulip Siddiq is the Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn. Chris Percy is an independent researcher and consultant, focusing on the education sector and civil society.