I wrote a post for Labour Teachers earlier in the week. As it was about education, I thought I’d share it here.
I was reminded the other day of this blogpost “Let’s stop eulogising democratic accountability” by Jonathan Simons of Policy Exchange. The post argues that the political accountability for education provided by control by local authorities is so weak that parties who oversee a worsening in local education provision are more likely to have gained electorally than lost. This is not a surprise. No single issue dominates local elections, and education is one where local politicians often have the least to say. But it is rare to have any discussion in the Labour Party of education without somebody suggesting that local authority control is more democratic and that Academies are “privatisation” or “undemocratic”.
What follows are my main experiences of local authority control of schools. Utterly anecdotal, but I hope they highlight issues.
- When I was training to be a teacher, my local constituency party invited in the councillor responsible for education. (I think it would have been in the days of “committee chairs” rather than “lead members”). Despite having schools in the area that supply teachers would run a mile from, and a lot of schools with low exam results in the area, he told us the council were doing really well because no schools were currently in special measures.
- When I was an NQT, the director of education (or probably the deputy director of education) visited my school and told all staff that there would be no permanent exclusions from now on because figures were too high. In the months that followed teachers were sworn at, spat on and terrorised in the school.
- I worked at a school that had once been branded the worst in the country. It became part of a federation with another more successful school. Its results went from terrible to just bad. It started attracting a different intake. The leaders I saw (provided from that other school) were incredibly effective. Then, before the school had a chance to really improve, the funding for the federation was withdrawn by the local authority; most of the good managers went; an emergency replacement head was drafted in who didn’t seem to have a clue, and the school became something of a nightmare to work at.
- During the time when “inclusion” was still fashionable, the education spokesperson of the Labour opposition group came to speak to members at a policy forum organised by the district party. When I raised the issue of inclusion, (i.e. the deliberate policy of running down special schools and forcing kids with special needs or appalling behaviour into mainstream classrooms) she simply said that all the experts were agreed that it was for the best, so we had to support it. Other party members at the meeting also disagreed with her, but even in opposition, it was not considered possible for the party to oppose what council officers had advised was best.
- Two of the authorities I worked in changed control between Labour and the Tories or back again, while I was working there. I cannot tell you a single policy change that resulted from the changes that I was aware of as a teacher.
- I experienced local authority trainers and consultants. Back in the days of local authority control, my NQT training was given by the local authority. They taught me about thinking hats. Other LA advisors taught me about thinking skills. And card sorts. And interventions. And all sorts of nonsense. And this does not seem to have been unusual. LA consultancy was the place that failed middle managers tended to end up.
I don’t think anything I describe above is particularly unusual. LAs were bureaucracies whose main priority often seemed to be keeping a lid on the worst schools while trying to keep the best schools from attracting too many students from their neighbours. No doubt, for every anecdote above about LAs an equivalent one can be found about academy trusts. But then I’m not arguing for compulsory academisation. All I’m arguing for is an acceptance that sometimes, for some schools, the influence of the LA can be harmful and an escape route is needed. All I’m arguing is that LA control was never a model of democracy. All I’m arguing is that Labour should stop speaking up for the idea that council officers know best.
I’d sooner have the status quo than a return to the days of LA interference. Turning the clock back to LA control is a policy with little to recommend it. If we are not happy with the current situation, and I accept it is fragmented, then we should at least come up with something new, perhaps something genuinely democratic.