A guest briefing from the Labour conference by Adam Lent, director of the New Local Government Network
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It has become so rare to hear national politicians talk about returning power over schools to councils that Angela Rayner’s forthright speech to the Labour conference came as something of a surprise. In an agenda-setting intervention, the shadow education secretary, declared academisation and free schools dead and attacked multi-academy trusts. Instead, a Labour government would give councils the powers and the funding to build new schools, create school places and take full control of admissions from trusts.
Despite the refreshing feel of the speech, Rayner is really swimming with the tide. The headline-grabbing policy of mass academisation introduced by Michael Gove (a man who never met a big simplistic idea he didn’t like) has become increasingly friendless over the years. There is little evidence to show the policy has made a significant difference to educational attainment relative to the huge resources and effort spent on it. Free schools have proved to be of marginal importance. The attempt to add some coherence to the inevitable fragmentation caused of academisation by appointing regional school commissioners covering vast areas of the country has proven largely ineffective.
So, it is a common sense move to revive the role of the bodies which once held schooling together at a local level as Gove’s expensive, lengthy and unsuccessful experiment reaches its dotage.
However, Rayner’s speech was very weak on any new strategy for significant school improvement. It reflects Labour’s abiding obsession with the evils of the market and the virtues of the public sector, that she seems to imply that the very act of handing powers back to councils will generate improvements. This is wrong. It needs to be admitted that even under council control, many schools were not delivering for their students. Academisation may have been a poor prescription but the diagnosis of a sickly education system was right.
In fact, both academisation and the faith in in-house education services make the same mistake. They expect changes to the high-level structures of our education system to generate major, tangible benefits to the achievements of hundreds of thousands of individual students. Of course, structures and governance are important, but the evidence is clear that real improvement at school level is the result of a patient and consistent effort to introduce incremental shifts in school culture, teacher quality and student expectations. It is unglamorous but vital work that has to be led by headteachers and their staff themselves. There is no short cut through big policy and grand reforms.
It is here where councils can really play a new significant role. They are well-placed to act as the initiators of a collaborative, supportive effort in their areas to help schools embrace ambition and excellence, raise up teacher performance and encourage students to think big. It is an effort that needs to draw not just on schools themselves but also on all the resources and strengths of local business, colleges, public sector bodies, voluntary sector and the wider community.
Of course, this may not make for great, eye-catching policy. But if Labour were to commit to support such collaborative place-based effort with patience and determination then we may one day look back on Angela Rayner’s 2018 conference speech as the point at which education policy finally got it right.
Adam Lent, director, New Local Government Network