Stephen Twigg’s recent “No School Left Behind” has firmly established Labour policy on school structures for the next term. Although much of the debate in education is now raging about standards—and we can expect more from Twigg on that crucial issue in the near future—structures do matter (after all, they establish who is responsible for pursuing high standards and what happens if they do not succeed) and this speech has established a number of key principals for the next stage of education reform.
The speech can best be thought of as a kind of schooling “births, marriages and deaths” column. The “deaths” in question are those of the National Curriculum as we have known it, and the Free Schools policy as it has been operated by this government. Offering the freedom from the National Curriculum which academies enjoy to all schools without a change of status, heralds the end of the centrally-proscribed curriculum first introduced by the Education Reform Act of 1988. That is not to say all schools will now be free to teach whatever they wish: it is a legal requirement, which applies to all extant academies and indeed Free Schools, that the curriculum be broad and balanced, and the potential danger of, say, Creationism in the Science curriculum remains ruled out. However, the days of checking carefully compliance with the minutiae of the National Curriculum documents, including all appendices, are clearly numbered. Such freedom will need careful monitoring—there was, after all, a reason that curriculum control was removed from schools in the 1980s—but with Labour’s commitment to a strong accountability system, led by Ofsted, a better balance will be struck between central power and school-based autonomy.
The death of Free Schools is intimately linked to the birth of new parent- and teacher-led academies. Michael Gove has had some fun demanding to know what the difference is between these policies, but, really, it is clear: Free Schools can, if the DfE so desires it, be established anywhere that parental demand can be plausibly demonstrated; Labour’s new academies will require a greater demonstration of not just demand but need. This is a perfectly sensible innovation. Whilst Labour should never be in the business of offering local parents the Hobson’s choice of a poor quality school or no state school at all, where there are good quality local places, parents should be directed to them, so that money—which we all must acknowledge is not going to be is massive supply, even after 2015—can be directed to the areas of most urgent need. Stephen Twigg’s position sensibly ensures that the entrepreneurial spirit which Free Schools has amply demonstrated amongst the teaching profession is not rudely reined in, but instead channelled into avenues that are cost efficient as well as educationally beneficial.
The putative marriage Twigg has announced is, possibly, a rather more rocky one: David Blunkett is to lead a policy review aiming to bring together the Miss Haversham of education reform, local education authorities, with the academies in their patches. Although much of the benefit of Labour’s original academies programme was derived from their freedom from the petty bureaucracy that too often accompanied local authority control, the enormous expansion in the number of schools with a direct relationship with Whitehall runs the risk of creating a new, even more remote bureaucracy. This clearly needs a fix, and there are two reasons to have faith that Blunkett can provide one. In the first case, Blunkett combines an excellent record as a highly effective Education Secretary, willing to make tough choices and tackle vested interests in the pursuit of better outcomes for children, with over a decade of experience on, and ultimately leading, Sheffield Council; a council that, notwithstanding its Far Left reputation in the 1980s, actually had significant success in reforming the relationship between the local authority and the community to be better focussed on the needs of citizens. If anyone in Labour can square the circle of school autonomy and local oversight, it is Blunkett. The second reason for hope is the work that Labour local authorities like my own borough of Haringey are already doing to shape the new landscape of education. When faced with forced academisation, Haringey’s leader Claire Kober convened an expert panel to advise on improving the borough’s own education offer and relationships with all schools, local authority, academies, and all the rest; such work can help inform the national picture, building relationships between Labour’s education team at the centre and in the localities.
With this speech, Stephen Twigg has committed Labour to turning the tools we inherit to a task of education reform in line with our values. It is a rational, radical vision of education that Labour should be proud to support.