Ideology rather than efficiency seems to be the Watchword in Sanctuary Buildings, the home of Mr Gove’s Department for Schools. Not content with wasting money on changing the name of his department, the only minister to do so, Mr Gove has rushed out his Academies Bill, or Grant Maintained Schools (Academies) Bill as it ought really to be known. For the Tory academies are really only grant maintained schools with another name.
The present Chief Secretary to the Treasury has the advantage of coming from Scotland where, although the relations between the parliament and local authorities can be fraught, there is a clear recognition of where the responsibility for education lies. He ought to look carefully at the Academy Bill and ask what the potential financial effect of the proposed legislation is.
Apart from the obvious diseconomies of scale if local authorities are left with an unpredictable number of schools not willing or able to take the opt out route, and why would a school that spends more than the local average want to do become a GMA if it lost income in the process, there is still the need to plan for the future, to regulate, to chase up parents who don’t send their offspring to school and to deal with excluded pupils.
The Funding Agency for Schools, the body responsible for GM schools last time around, made it clear in one of its final reports that there would be a shortage of secondary school places in parts of London; and so there was early in this century as no one body had overall responsibility for planning. Such a nightmare will result unless a new planning body is established for GMAs. For this reason alone, the Bill deserves to be shelved until a more comprehensive look at schooling, including plans for both new providers and a pupil premium as a method of funding can be discussed. It would be plain daft if a school was given money on becoming a GMA only to have it taken away under the new PP formula. But, perhaps that’s Gove’s real aim, to protect schools that won’t see any funding gain under a pupil premium, and might lose money if the Chancellor cannot find extra money for schools as the Liberal Democrats pledged.
GMAs will join their Labour counterparts in becoming free from national pay scales. Experience to date has shown that such a freedom, as exercised by Labour’s academies, has had an upward pressure on salaries. Some leadership teams in particular have benefitted significantly from enhanced salaries with little or no monitoring as to value for money. The lack of regulation can produce an ‘unacceptable face of capitalism’ as governments down the years have discovered.
Individual schools need to fit within a coherent framework regardless of who runs each separate institution. Too many Tory advisers don’t understand this, and their local government colleagues have failed to be robust enough with their Westminster colleagues.
Liberal Democrats place a high value on education, and cannot afford for scarce resources to be wasted during this period of austerity government. The Academies Bill should never have seen the light of coalition government, and should now be shelved. There may need to be a fresh look at education in this country, but a rushed Bill is not the way to do it; it should be dumped.
John Howson President of the Liberal Democrat Education Association and has advised various Liberal Democrat education spokespersons over the past 13 years. He writes here in a personal capacity.