The Labour Party has a problem with education. On the one hand, it recognises that the academies programme which it inaugurated is very popular with parents. But on the other hand, it knows that the unions, upon which it depends financially, are opposed to reform. This creates tension where policy is concerned: how can the party satisfy voters and the unions?
This tension is embodied by the reform-minded shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg (a driving force behind the original adoption of academies), who appeared on Andrew Neil’s Sunday Politics earlier this morning. His words (and there were a lot of them) speak volumes about the party’s difficulty with the word ‘academy’. If you are a parent or union leader, and you can make sense of the following exchange, then I expect that Ed Miliband would very much like to hear from you:
AN: If the academy model works, and it’s your party’s model, happened under your government, why should it be limited simply to failing schools, which is what you seem to be saying? Why not apply it to what your Downing Street one called ‘bog-standard comprehensives’?
ST: Well, I think that’s a very good point and I think one of the things we’re doing in our policy review is looking at the freedoms that schools should have. And my view is that some of the flexibilities that academies have should apply to all schools regardless of their structure. For example, I’ve spoken about the benefits of a longer school day. Why not allow all schools to do that?
AN: But that would make them all academies, wouldn’t it?
ST: Whether it’s making them academies or whether it’s simply saying that we give that greater freedom to all schools. What is it that makes an academy different? What we had in our academy programme was sponsors who worked very closely with the school to bring about improvement. The government doesn’t even have that. And we know from the evidence that most schools that have voted to become academies under Michael Gove’s system have done it for financial reasons. I don’t blame them for that, I don’t criticise them for that, but it’s not necessary for innovation.
AN: I’m confused here, Mr Twigg. On the one hand, you raise the prospect that maybe all schools should become academies, or versions of, while on the other hand you criticise the government for rolling out academies.
ST: I criticise them for the way that they’ve done it. Because we’ve now got 2,000 schools that are academies or free schools. Who are they accountable to? They’re accountable to Michael Gove. I don’t think that is desirable, I don’t think that’s a good system, and some of these schools will fail. We’ve got to have systems that spot the early signs of failure in our schools.
AN: But some schools always – I mean, do you accept, I mean, I’ll put this quote up to you because it seemed to me that Tony Blair and your successor as the Schools Minister, Andrew Adonis, they felt this model should be rolled out. This is what Andrew Adonis had to say: ‘neither I nor Tony Blair believed that academies should be restricted to areas with failing schools. We wanted all schools to be eligible for academy status.’ Is that Labour policy still?
ST: No, that’s not Labour policy. What we’re saying is academies have done some brilliant things, but so too have community schools. And I’m wanting to move the debate on because the structure of a school, the name of a school, the way it’s governed, that’s not the main thing that determines how well it does.
AN: Why isn’t that your policy any more since it was supported so much by you when you were in power, and by Andrew Adonis and by Tony Blair?
ST: Our academies programme did brilliant things. I think it was fantastic, and I think some of the government’s academies, even some of the government’s free schools, will do some brilliant things, but we’ve got to look at the evidence, and what the evidence says that it is the quality of teaching and the quality of leadership that makes a difference in our schools. And I think it’s quite wrong for us to dismiss the many, many brilliant community schools that don’t want to become academies.
AN: But I’m confused still. Because you told me earlier – and I’m grateful for the enlightenment – you told me earlier that you thought all schools should have academy-style freedoms, and yet I put up the Andrew Adonis quote that we never believed all academies should be restricted just to failing schools, we wanted all schools to be eligible for academy status, and you tell me that’s no longer Labour policy.
ST: Well, there are two issues here. The academy freedoms, which is what the earlier question was about, I made half my point. The second half of my point is that I think there are certain expectations parents should have of every school. So, for example, I disagree with Michael Gove when he says that academy schools aren’t bound by the school meals standards. I think that’s a very, very big concern in terms of public policy.
AN: So if he did that you’d be happy with academies?
ST: I’m in favour of having entitlements for parents and pupils regardless of the school. So let’s – I mean the point I made about the school day is one point, but let me make another point. Curriculum flexibility. One of the freedoms that we gave to academies that’s continued is more freedom over the curriculum. If that works and makes sense, which I think it does, let’s extend that to all schools. It doesn’t necessarily mean that those schools have to all become academies in order to get that status. Most primary schools haven’t adopted academy status under the government’s proposals.
AN: But do you welcome, since you think academy status is something, which you did think, I don’t think you still do, for failing schools do you welcome the government’s intention to move in on some of the worst primary schools with academy status?
ST: Well we absolutely need to get improvement in some of the worst primary schools –
AN: But do you welcome what the government’s doing?
ST: Sometimes academy status might be the solution, but look at – I mean you questioned Michael Gove on this back in January, look at how badly he handled the Downhill School in Harringey. Much better to work with the local community, with local parents to bring about improvements in our schools.
AN: But do you back academies in primary schools now?
ST: Sometimes, but not always. It’s not the only solution. Sometimes a better solution is a federation with a successful local primary school.
AN: What if parents vote for it?
ST: If parents vote for it then of course, then of course that would make sense, and I went to a very interesting school in Hackney a couple of weeks ago, they’re in federation with another local primary school with a head teacher covering both schools. I think it will work. It’s not an academy, so sometimes the solution might be academy status, but not always.’
PS:There was a similar exchange on free schools, which Twigg said the Labour Party opposed but would not reverse if it was returned to power because
some of them would be ‘excellent schools and I’m not in the business of closing down excellent schools’.