"The NES will only be a success if it’s local, autonomous and with adequate investment. It has to be a true partnership between headteachers, governors, unions, educational charities like The Access project, and local government. A National Educational Service does not and should not look the same in London as it does in Birmingham."
School governors are the biggest single volunteer force in the UK with over 250,000 serving communities across the country. Labour needs to be on their side.
School governors are an essential and historical part of the UK education system. However the role has become a contested after endless drastic structural changes in the English education system. Governors are not without faults however, they are overly represented by retired white men, and training is not yet compulsory across the sector.
Governors are however central members of their local communities with the best governors nurturing relationships with parents, and community groups as well as staff and headteacher. Governors are expected to understand school performance data, complicated acronyms and navigate an educational culture that produces new initiatives like they are going out of fashion. All of this at the same time as running a business, or raising a family or working full time.
One such educational initiative has been the expansion of the academies programme which started under New Labour and was vigorously expanded by the coalition and Tory government. Academies have always been controversial especially amongst Labour members.
The Educational Policy Institute produced a report analysing the impact of academies on educational outcomes pre and post expansion in 2010. They have found that academies are no panacea for school improvement. They did find, however that the original academies programme pre-2010 did have discernible effects on school improvement possibly due to improved leadership, resources and governance.
So any positive effect that academies delivered was in the initial phase of the policy and has subsequently been lost with the expansion of the programme. Academies policy have moved away from a genuine practical policy to improve underperforming schools, to an ideology that disregards evidence like a driver ignoring an engine light on their dashboard.
Academies have been encouraged to merge into Multi-academy trusts (MATs) in an increasingly centralised and atomised education system. They formalise school collaboration which was one of the key findings of the London Challenge success: schools that build effective partnerships leads to a better overall system. However, I would argue MATs do not represent ‘effective partnership.
They reduce back-rooms costs but lead to higher levels of executive pay, they allow schools to collaborate under a single umbrella organisation but can be so geographically spread that it’s impossible for teachers to travel easily between schools and share best practice. They form partnerships that remove autonomy from local governing boards and centralise power into fewer and fewer hands.
School cuts mobilised teachers, parents and governors at the last election to Labours advantage. However our education policy can’t be only about money, and structures. Governors should be at the heart of Labour’s education policy.
Labour needs to be on the side of the local school governor. Everyone is tired, frustrated and/or apathetic of large scale structural changes. If Labour’s National Education Service (NES) is to succeed it can’t be another large scale state institution ran from London. It can’t be another forced change like academisation, but a genuine partnership with local communities coming together to deliver the best education possible for everyone especially those from the most deprived areas of our country.
I’m not convinced by Multi Academy Trusts (MATs) because they are opaque, they remove accountability from governing boards and they are vulnerable to corruption. But a massive overall turning all schools into local authority schools again would be disruptive to the sector. It would be counter-productive, waste money and lose all good will Labour has with the wider sector currently.
The NES will only be a success if it’s local, autonomous and with adequate investment. It has to be a true partnership between headteachers, governors, unions, educational charities like The Access project, and local government. A National Educational Service does not and should not look the same in London as it does in Birmingham.
The lessons of the London Challenge are that schools work best when they work together, with shared purpose and shared resource, at a local geographic coherent level. Labour’s policy should build on the research that the EEF has developed in evidence based strategies, and look to create a system which runs on peer-to-peer partnerships like that in Finland, without an OFSTED style organisation.
Labour’s education policy needs to be more than re-introducing or undoing New Labour and Tory policy from the last twenty years. It has to be more than saying it will increase free-school meals and reinstate EMA. We have to do better. We need to own the future.
Sam Murphy is a Young Fabian member