While Ed Miliband dominated the conference season, Labour was exposed on one critical area of policy: education. Hemmed in by internal debates, Labour has failed to project a clear and compelling agenda on what was once its signature policy issue. Tristram Hunt has been given the job of putting that right. It’s a calculated risk to give such a big job to a newly elected MP, but Hunt is intelligent and popular, and he has sufficiently broad political appeal to carry different constituencies of interest with him.
His first task is to put the free schools question to bed. Stephen Twigg tried gamely to settle Labour’s position on this core issue earlier in the summer, but his formula of support for ‘parent-led academies’ and opposition to ‘new’ free schools was tortured and unconvincing. It was a politically constructed and tactical position, not a strategic one that allowed him to move forward into new political territory. It was relatively easy to characterise as opposition to free schools tout court.
Labour should embrace the civic energy and innovation that many free schools and academies have brought with them into the education system. It is pointless and politically counterproductive to set yourself against innovative schools like School 21 and the Greenwich Free School. The founders of these schools are at the leading edge of education reform and their commitment to comprehensive education should be welcomed, not shunned. As an historian of Victorian civic localism and an advocate of Labour’s mutualist traditions, Hunt is well positioned to make an argument of this kind.
He should therefore support the principle that parents and communities can demand new schools if they are not being properly served by existing institutions, but with stricter quality controls and oversight. Michael Gove’s rush to create as many new free schools as possible has led him to lower the bar: to let in some substandard providers and to allow schools in areas with an existing surplus of good quality places. Labour should instead use free schools to drive up standards, allowing them to be created where there are too few good school places; if there are surplus places in schools to which parents do not want to send their children, then free schools, academies and other providers should be invited to take over those schools. The main divide on school providers should be between those who want schools to remain public institutions and those prepared to allow profit-making companies to run schools – not between the public sector and voluntary endeavour.
Critically, a shift in policy of this kind should be accompanied by an insistence on local democratic accountability for schools. The academies programme is a proud legacy of the Labour government – creating strong autonomous institutions that can help change communities for the better. But in expanding the academies programme so rapidly, Gove has created thousands of schools with very little local oversight. A handful of civil servants in Whitehall are responsible for commissioning these schools. Academy chains are not inspected and some schools in danger of being ‘trapped’ in chains. Schools are funded by legal contracts with a secretary of state who possesses Napoleonic powers.
The answer is to create new schools commissioners, appointed by mayors and city leaders in combined authorities or by upper tier local authorities. Schools commissioners should take over many of the powers currently exercised by the secretary of state – opening new schools, taking over failing schools, and ensuring a supply of good school places is available in every area, with fair admissions for all children. Although appointed by the relevant public authority in a locality, they should be required by law to raise standards in education and respond to expressed parental demands.
Once these questions are settled – and David Blunkett’s ongoing ‘middle tier’ review for the Labour leadership is the perfect vehicle for sorting them out – Hunt can move onto his own chosen ground. There is plenty of scope radically to advance new arguments for universal childcare and high-quality early learning, the teaching of modern foreign languages in primary schools, curriculum reform for the 21st century, a coherent 14–19 phase with strong new vocational pathways and institutions, and the development of a new agenda for raising the standards and status of teaching. All of this territory can open up for Hunt – once the drag anchor of free schools is lifted.