Last night I went to an interesting debate at the London School of Economics
. The Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove and Labour peer Lord Glasman , author of Blue Labour
and involved in the party’s policy review
, were discussing who “owns” the concept of One Nation, originated by Benjamin Disraeli and appropriated by Labour leader Ed Miliband in his conference speech last year.
It was a good-natured affair and quite hard to see much difference between the two men, and the "One Nation" concept as articulated by them did seem to be a very “blokish” affair with lots of references to male politicians and political theorists.
Mr Gove kindly name-checked the Local Schools Network from the platform. I think this was really a sideswipe at the unions. He was claiming that debate about the future of education policy was not taking place in the professional organisations but amongst the grass roots and in the blogosphere.
So on one side there were bloggers like Andrew Old and someone called Tom Bennett, who Mr Gove said made the case for his reforms better than he (Gove) could. On the other side, he named the Head Teachers Roundtable
and the Local Schools Network, responsible for incisive and well-argued opposition.
When it came to schools and “One Nation” the discussion seemed to boil down to governance. Mr Gove, unsurprisingly, focused on his free schools policy as an example of how teachers were now empowered to set up institutions serving their local communities in the same way that many other professionals had been free to do for years.
I was given the chance to ask a question at the end so I asked Mr Gove how he could reconcile his rhetoric of community, and local empowerment, with the fact that the last 25 years have seen a massive power grab by central governments of both colours away from local communities.
Before the 1988 Education Act the Secretary of State had three powers of direction over schools, after the 1988 Act he was given 250 powers and he now has over 2000. Several thousand academy schools are now directly contracted to the DFE.
The Secretary of State’s argument (a bit weak I thought) was not to deny my central point but to ask whether heads and schools would feel they were more or less interfered with than in the past. I suspect that if the audience has been made up of heads and teachers, there would have been an immediate, not altogether positive, response to that point.
But Lord Glasman’s answer was interesting and similar to a comment he had made in his opening remarks. I can’t provide a direct quote as the transcript isn’t available yet and I was too busy listening to take detailed notes.
But in essence he said that “we” which I took to mean Labour (or maybe he meant Blue Labour) believed in “ a third, a third, a third” - the three way split of ownership/governance of public institutions and in schools this would mean parents, teachers and “the funders” which in the case of the free schools is of course the government.
I was surprised for two reasons. Firstly, even as a committed activist with a fairly well known interest in schools policy, I wasn’t aware that Labour had a policy on this, or was even thinking along these lines, which may say something about how policy is being developed and the extent to which members are involved.
But more importantly the sort of model he described is in fact the same as the long established “stakeholder” model of governance, in which elected parents and teachers are represented on a governing body alongside community (or foundation in the case of Trust, VA and faith schools) and the local authority, which is the funder in the maintained system.
This system is still used in maintained schools, which in spite of the DFE spin make up the vast majority of schools in this country, and is quite at odds with the academy/free school model in which the Secretary of State has a commercial contract with the sponsor who then appoints all the governors.
I for one would be very glad if Labour is planning to reinvent a modernized version of the stakeholder model of governance. Maybe a co-operative or community trust school could be the default structure for new schools in the future?
It is just not true to suggest, as the government frequently does, that only the academy model of governance can succeed. There are thousands of examples of very successful schools with this sort of "stakeholder" representative governance arrangement and also examples of academies that are failing. In either case there is provision for the removal of a failing governing body.
But the "stakeholder" model is a real example of community activity, democracy and localism in practice. In my area, the London Borough of Camden, where no school has yet converted to academy status, we have a mix of stakeholder governing bodies, as there are a lot of faith schools and two non-denominational VA secondary schools.
Nearly every school ( and 100% of the secondary schools) is good or outstanding in Ofsted terms. The governors association, of which I am vice chair, is active and works with the LA. The Camden Partnership for Excellence
also includes representatives from parent groups, the LA, governors and the wider community.
There are many examples of this type of devolved power and collaborative work emerging across the country as schools recognise that in fact they want to be part of a community, rather than a free floating institution in an atomised market driven system. Michael Gove did cite this fact as evidence of how his academies policy was creating new types of One Nation structures.
A return to stakeholder governance raises much bigger questions about what happens to schools with the existing academy governance model and I hope the Labour Party will invite those of us outside the blokes’ inner circle to discuss these wider questions before too long.
But in the meantime I feel cautiously encouraged that something along these lines might be possible.