In part of his Budget manspreading this week, George Osborne stole Nicky Morgan’s announcement that councils will be forced to relinquish control of all schools, so every single one is an Academy. As Philip Collins says in the Times today, this doesn’t mean they’ll all get better – he rather scorns the idea. But his old boss, Tony Blair, had precisely the same idea: to (in effect) privatise every single state school, so each one is independent of the council and has a direct financial relationship with Whitehall, cutting out local authorities entirely. Blair was vetoed by Brown and had to settle for a few hundred Academies. But in this, as with so much else, the Tories are finishing what Blair started. Councils must get out of education by 2020.
I cheered Blair’s proposal, but it’s not the case that all councils are rotten. Some are excellent at running schools, and it would be a shame to lose them. In his brilliant Reith Lecture, Niall Ferguson argued that the most important factor in school provision was competition and choice. As he argued:-
‘We need to recognise the limits of public monopolies in education, especially for societies that have long ago achieved mass literacy. The problem is that public monopoly providers of education suffer from the same problems that afflict monopoly providers of anything: quality declines because of lack of competition and the creeping power of vested producer interests.
‘Now, I am not arguing here for private schools against state schools. I am arguing for both – because biodiversity is preferable to monopoly. A mix of public and private institutions with meaningful competition favours excellence – that is why American universities, which operate within an increasingly global competitive system, are the best in the world – 21 out of the world’s top 30. While American high schools, in a localised monopoly system, are generally rather bad.’
I quite agree: why should all schools be independent of local authorities? Why don’t council schools compete with the new Academies (some of which are pretty awful) and let parents decide? Surely this is the Conservative thing to do?
Yet at present, the policy is a bit biased. Councils cannot apply to run free schools, or chains of Academies. They’re about the only people barred from the system. I can understand the Tories’ scepticism about council structures, but not all of them are awful. My kids are in a council-run school now, and it’s excellent.
I believe in choice, and I’d like to see that choice include council-run schools. So if they want to get back in the game, running free schools, the government should let them.