The leader of the Local Government Association’s Labour group has launched a stinging attack on government education policy, describing grammar schools as a “smokescreen” for wider problems and the academy system as “utter nonsense”.
Nick Forbes, leader of Newcastle City Council, told a fringe meeting at Labour Party conference on Monday that he believed the latest government proposals in a green paper on education reform, which backed a lifting of a ban on new grammar schools, would “entrench inequality”.
Cllr Forbes questioned Theresa May’s motives for backing new grammar schools, which has proved controversial with some MPs in her own party, saying she was a “very cautious politician… who only does things when she knows what the outcome is going to be”.
He added: “I can’t help but think that this is a bit of sideshow to detract attention from some of the other big issues that are going on in education at the moment, such as the real funding crisis that is starting to affect schools, the potential impact of the new funding formula and the failure of the forced academisation programme to drive performance.
“The idea that we would cast aside children at a particular age because they have not passed a particular test is abhorrent to all our ideals of educational approach which serves everybody.”
The Labour Group will lead on education for the Local Government Association after leader of Islington LBC Richard Watts took over as chair of the children and young people board.
Cllr Forbes said there had been a “remarkable degree” of cross-party consensus in the LGA over too much centralisation in the education system, a lack of local accountability and concern that forced academisation was not the solution to driving up performance.
He admitted that he did not know the identity of schools commissioner in the north east responsible for holding academies to account.
Clle Forbes said: “The current system is utter nonsense – Lewis Carroll couldn’t come up with something quite as ridiculous as we have at the moment.
“You have academies accountable to a regional commissioner, local authorities responsible for school improvement services - including in those academies accountable to the schools commissioner - and local authorities inspected on their performance for those school improvement services despite the fact they have no legislative mandate to intervene in the academies on their patch.
“You could not make this up. It is a ludicrous fairytale of a story.”
LGA research shows 75% of academies are rated good or outstanding, while 82% of maintained schools achieved the same standard.
There is a 9% gap in performance.
Cllr Watts said he believed there was a battle going on in government over those in favour of the “atomisation” approach of former education secretary Michael Gove and Theresa May’s desire to exert more central control.
Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner told the meeting the government’s grammar schools green paper was “written on the back of a fag packet” and lacked substance in terms of evidence based policy.