Tonight Stephen Twigg, Labour Education spokesperson, gave the annual Caroline Benn memorial lecture at the House of Commons (full speech here)
. He restated his commitment to comprehensive schools and to a "one nation education system".
I came keen to know his plans for the new secondary school terrain. With any future Labour government inheriting a mixture of maintained schools, independent academies, chains and free schools, how would schools be accountable? What role did he see for local authorities?
What Role for Local Government?
Stephen explained that he had had a group looking at the issue and he did see a "very important role" for local government in education. Specifically he saw three roles:
1) A voice for the local community
2) Planning and commissioning of new school places
3) Provider of some schools, especially primary schools
It is good to know that he does see a role for democratically elected local authorities. And the planning role is a huge step forward from the current situation where free schools seem to be being set up regardless of local need. But is it enough? There is no role here for the democratically elected authority to hold the schools to account and Stephen also stated that he saw no problem with a range of different providers running our schools.
As a Chair of Governors of a maintained Hackney comprehensive I know the local authority has a good knowledge of our school. When, several years ago, the school was seen as not doing well enough (despite having a fine Ofsted rating and results well above any government floor) the LEA intervened with a mixture of challenge and support. We know we are accountable to the community and that we will be held to account by the local authority.
Who will provide the external challenge and support?
In the world of academies and free schools, some will do well and some will not. But who will they accountable to? Technically they are of course accountable to the DfE but nobody there will know the schools as well as the local authority. There is no evidence or expectation of the early-intervention challenge and support that we have in an active and successful local education authority like Hackney.
There is an argument that all schools should have the autonomy enjoyed by academies. And, pressed by Chair Melissa Benn, Stephen Twigg agreed that "If a freedom is worth having, then all schools should have it. if a freedom is not worth having, then no school should have it."
But in this world of freedom for schools, who holds them to account? Stephen Twigg is comfortable with the mixture of school structures. But there is a simple step to bring co-ordination and effectiveness to the education system, and that is to make all schools - whatever their structures - accountable to the local authority. As Alan Wood, ex-Chief Executive of Hackney's Learning Trust, says "They may not be our schools but they are our kids".
Stephen, will you take the role for local authorities that step further?