(A shorter version of this article appears on the website of the ‘think tank’ Bright Blue of which the Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, is the President.)
The Education White Paper and local democracy
The 2015 Conservative manifesto includes a section on localism and the ‘Big Society’. It describes “a vision of a more engaged nation, one in which we take more responsibility for ourselves and our neighbours; communities working together, not depending on remote and impersonal bureaucracies”.
The Education White Paper – “Educational Excellence Everywhere” – which was published on March 17th proposes moves in completely the opposite direction. It advocates the transfer of the remaining 16-17,000 schools which are not yet academies (still the large majority as under 5,000 are academies or free schools) from local authority to independent control – or Multi Academy Trusts (MATs) as they have come to be known. It also proposes the removal of the long-existing requirement to include parent representatives on the governing bodies of schools.
The proposals have resulted in a furore of opposition, and not just from the most likely sources. A growing list of education portfolio holders in Conservative Councils have expressed their opposition, many in the most immoderate terms. Melinda Tilley of Oxfordshire County Council, for example, described the proposals as “big brother gone mad”. The Bow Group is against the plans and the 1922 Committee Chair, Graham Brady, has signalled that there will be a backbench rebellion if the White Paper proposals move to legislation. Recently, Birmingham City Council has publicly vowed to oppose several of the White Paper proposals including forced academisation.
As a long-time school governor and parent of a child in a secondary school which was a fairly early converter to academy status, I am not at all surprised by these reactions. The White Paper is anti-democratic, centralising – it will require a large centralised bureaucracy, if implemented - and completely at odds with an important theme of the 2015 manifesto, on which the government was elected. There was nothing at all in the manifesto about forced academisation.
(In terms of centralising power and bureaucracy it’s clear, for example, that the new Regional Schools Commissioners’ remit is far greater than their capacity. Also that the DfE and the Education Funding Agency – responsible for seeing that MATs follow the ever-increasing rules and safeguards that will be needed to protect the public interest – are already recruiting and will need to take on large numbers of bureaucrats if the academisation plans go ahead.)
The structure of school governance was created to bring local communities together, encouraging them to take collective responsibility for their children’s education. Parents are integral to this process; after all, who has a bigger stake than parents in their local schools? We contribute the taxes to pay for state education and these are our children. The structure of school governance was a ‘Big Society’ idea before the term was coined.
So should parents, as the White Paper proposes, be denied a say in how our children’s schools are run? To be regarded as passive ‘customers’, making our judgements on the quality of the ‘educational product’ on offer (an offer defined by criteria which – in my view – are in any case completely inadequate). Very few state sector ‘customers’ anyway have much of a choice about where their children are educated because there are only a few locally accessible schools.
Surely it’s better to work together with our communities and in collaboration with other nearby schools and stakeholders in order to make our local school the best possible place for our children?
My experience as the parent of a ‘customer’ of a secondary school which became an academy in 2012 has not been a very good one. A series of decisions were taken by the school which many parents have objected to. Too late we realised that we have no power and few effective routes to complain under the new system. The local authority on whom we might have relied under the previous regime to look after our interests (and who we could un-elect if their actions displeased us) were no longer able to exercise direct influence either.
We have had to watch as the MAT leaders who are the proprietors of ‘our school’ have helped themselves to large salary increases while spending funds, which could have paid for teachers or better facilities, on ‘educational consultants’ (also, by no coincidence, on the MAT Board) while telling us and the world that the education they provide to their customers (our children) has been improving. In fact, the GCSE results at our school – the largest in the group – have been going downhill quite quickly.
A section of land on the school site, originally earmarked to be sold to provide funds to improve our local school will now be used, according to the latest MAT accounts, to cover the deficit that our school has built up. (We don’t know why the deficit has occurred but spending less on executive salaries and consultants would surely have helped.) In any case, under the White Paper proposals, MATs will be able to do what they like with funds derived from land sales in communities like ours, with the benefits quite likely distributed elsewhere.
These are some of the reasons why the Education White Paper is being opposed by individuals or groups across the political spectrum.
In presenting the proposals Nicky Morgan and her team may well be hoping that the threat of forced academisation will be enough to ensure schools decide to make the leap for fear of being forced into arrangements that they like even less. There will be a ‘tipping point’ beyond which local authority support becomes unviable. It may be that the DfE team hope that this development would make the central recommendation of the White Paper unnecessary. To allow this to happen would, I think, be a great mistake.
These proposals need to be re-thought before even greater damage is done.
Neil Wallis is a former school governor and parent of two children at state schools, one a secondary academy.