Labour Party Policy: back to a future of a fully maintained school system?

Last year we reported on the 10 principles of Labour’s Charter for a National Education Service. On Monday 24 September Angela Rayner’s speech at the 2018 Labour Party Conference provided some further insight into Labour’s vision for a National Education Service which included significant proposed change for more autonomous types of school.

The most dramatic change would be the ending of the academy and free school programme. The speech gave immediacy to Labour’s intention, if elected, to end the conversion of maintained schools including those which are compelled to convert after becoming eligible for intervention.

New local authority provided schools would also be built using investment set out in Labour’s 2017 general election manifesto. The free schools programme has been the route to opening a new school since 2011 in nearly all cases, although local authorities have had more say recently in the establishment of some new schools, especially new special academies.

As regards the current re-brokering of failed academies, how an academy would or indeed could be obliged to return to local authority control is unclear in practical and legal terms. For academies that wish to return to local authority control there is an indication that this would be permitted: again, the mechanics of how this would be achieved has also not been made clear as yet.

For the remainder of academies, there is no clarity on whether they would be forced to return wholesale to local authority control as grant maintained schools were in 1998. That appears unlikely given previous indications from Labour, but it is clear that Labour would seek to bring academies under closer overall “public” oversight.

More broadly Labour would bring all publicly funded schools back into the “mainstream public sector”, with “a common rulebook”, under “democratic control”. Reference to a common rulebook for schools reiterates the Labour Party’s longer standing direction of travel to ensure all state-funded schools are governed and bound in the same way by statutory obligations and guidance.

This policy also ties in with Principle 8 of Labour’s National Education Service Charter. The speech does not confirm whether ‘mainstream public sector’ means local authority and like Principle 8 of the Charter, the speech just refers to “democratic control”. Nevertheless any move to public sector governance would necessarily curtail existing autonomy. It is clear that Labour will seek to end the “mixed economy” of academy and maintained schools.

One of the most potentially contentious elements (for all types of publicly funded schools except community and voluntary controlled) is for local authorities to ‘take back control of admissions from academy trusts.’ In the case of current or previous voluntary aided schools, it would be the first time that a local authority would be responsible for setting their admissions, and we would expect considerable opposition.

We just have the headlines of Labour’s policies on school governance and establishment but they would constitute a very radical change, freezing the academisation programme at mid stage in its deployment and requiring a very substantial reconstruction of local government education capacity. They would also require substantial change to primary legislation and therefore a secure Labour majority. We will continue to monitor and report on this policy as it unfolds.

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