Labour conference: What do the party's education reforms mean for schools?

Posted on: 2018-09-24 19:00:00

Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, says the party would give local authorities more control, allowing them to open new schools and operate school admission policies. 

The plan is a move away from the government’s free school and academisation programme – which allows state schools to be independent from local authorities.

What is Labour proposing?

The party will not create free schools – the flagship policy of former education secretary Michael Gove – and councils will instead be given powers to build schools and control admissions.   

The number of free schools, which are academies set up by parents and independent groups, have grown significantly under the Conservative government, as has the number of academies.

But Labour says it will stop council-run schools currently rated as ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted from being forced to convert into academies.

Meanwhile, existing academies will be allowed to return to local authority control where multi-academy trusts (MATs) have failed.

The party also wants to ban ‘related party transactions’, meaning commercial arrangements between MATs and companies or individuals involved in running the trust, and it wants to enforce national pay rules to prevent academy chain chief executives being paid too high salaries. 

Why does Labour want to change the system?

The party believes building free schools is too expensive and that many have failed to provide school places where they are most needed.

It adds that the majority of free schools are not parent-led despite first being launched by the government with the aim of giving parents more choice.

On forced academy conversions, Labour claims there is a lack of evidence to suggest turning into an academy improves a school’s results.

The party wants to take a tougher stance on academy chains following a number of high-profile cases of alleged financial mismanagement – while at the same time, a growing number of trust bosses have been earning six-figure salaries.

What would the change mean for schools?

The announcement does not mean that Labour is planning to immediately convert all existing academies and free schools back into council-run school, which would be a sizeable task.

But a move away from academisation would mean headteachers of schools that remain controlled by the local authority – or of academies that choose to convert back to being council-run – would not have the same freedoms over the curriculum, teachers’ pay, and admissions.

Transferring responsibility for school admissions from individual academies and academy trusts to councils would lead to a clearer, more uniformed system for families applying for school places – but it could reduce parental choice, as well as the autonomy of the headteacher.

What does the sector say?

Education unions have welcomed the plan to give councils, the bodies responsible for ensuring there are enough school places, more powers to build schools and to oversee the system. 

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders' union NAHT, said: “In an increasingly fragmented school system we lack a co-ordinated approach to place planning."

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teachers’ union, said: “An enhanced role for local authorities would help the government to ensure that it has the levers it needs to ensure that all children and young people receive the high quality education to which they are entitled.”

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “Bringing all schools under the same system of democratic accountability and support is the vital next step to tackling the fragmentation and waste that has resulted from academies and free schools.

“Academies and free schools are neither wanted nor needed. There is no evidence that they improve the educational outcomes of children or young people and have caused chaos for school place provision.”

But not everyone in the sector are fans of Labour’s plans to return powers back to councils – and some dispute their claims about free schools.

Mark Lehain, interim director of the New Schools Network, the charity that supports groups wishing to set up free schools, said: “We know that with a rising school population we will need more school places across the country, and free schools are the best means of meeting this need.

“They are the most cost effective way to create new school places, and are on course to provide more than 400,000 places in areas of need.

"Without free schools, these places would be created by expanding existing schools, placing further pressure on schools that are already at capacity.”

Mr Lehain added that free schools are more likely to be oversubscribed and to be judged outstanding by Ofsted. “They are explicitly targeted in areas of basic need and poor performance, so the policy really is reaching those often forgotten in education policy,” he said.

Eleanor Busby, Education Correspondent

Source: Independent

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