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Is the future “local”? The case of education

The casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that Labour in 2014 has been entirely won over to the cause of the devolution of power. “Top-down” control is decried in favour of “bottom up” approaches, the regions/nations of the UK are to have much more control of their own affairs (the a panic quality of this regarding Scotland is all too evident), “local control” is extolled in every direction from regional banking, business strategy to schools.

But what does “local” actually mean?

The emptiness of much of the rhetoric should ring alarm bells. The abstract contrast of top-down (bad) with bottom-up (good) is nonsense. Any complex system needs both. If there is no need for top-down one is not dealing with a system. On the other hand a system which runs without lower level feedback will be unresponsive and problematic. A little thought soon shows that a national system requires both top-down steering and bottom-up implementation. The top-down versus bottom-up rhetoric is used by politicians who don’t believe that ordinary people are capable of understanding the issues or, more likely, don’t care to say what they really mean.

The word “local” is all over the Education and Children – Final Year Policy Document which goes to Annual Conference in a few days. In fact “local/locally” occurs 57 times, an average of nearly 4 times per page. We have “local authorities/government” 12 times. That is striking because they were not even mentioned in the original draft document. That reflects the concerns expressed at the NPF. Whether it answers them is another matter.

Then we have “local oversight” (x9), “local communities” (x8), “local accountability/locally accountable” (x7), “local school” (x5), “local areas” (x4), “local support” (x3), “parents locally” (x1), “locally appointed” (x1), “local family of schools” (x1), “local hands” (x1), “local input” (x1), “local intelligence” (x1), “decisions taken locally” (x1), “local decision-making” (x1), “local people” (x1)

That sounds like a vote of confidence in localism and even a return of powers to local government and I think that this was how NPF delegates understood what they voted for. Evidence for this is that they abandoned 40 amendments calling for a clear return of schools to local authorities in favour of heavy use of a more undefined “local”. The problem is that as soon as one asks exactly how “local people” will actually determine “local decisions” the situation is found to be very unclear.

This document should be read very carefully. If I am right, then its use “local” as against “central” by no means implies “democratic”. It was always clear that running schools from Westminister was not a long-term option. It facilitated a dramatic change in our school system carried out by Gove with extraordinary rapidity (the lack of effective opposition from Labour certainly helped). Now the Tories want devolution to regional controllers. Labour wants devolution to controllers at the level of local authorities or groups of authorities.

But here’s the thing: democracy is the missing element. In the post-war period Labour thought that putting unelected bureaucrats in charge of large national systems (coal, rail etc) was the answer. Now what Labour proposes is to put unelected bureaucrats in charge of schools at local level.

Let’s be clear: Labour’s Directors of School Services will control schools. They will have the power to open, close and regulate them. The DSS will be appointed by local authorities but, according to the Blunkett report, only from a government-approved list. Why that? Not only that but he/she will be “structurally independent” i.e. independent from the local authority that formally appoints them.

According to Education and Children local authorities will once again be able to set up community schools. But on what terms? The Blunkett Report says that new schools will be set up when the DSS decides (on the basis of “local evidence” provided by the “local authority”) that one is needed. The DSS will then open the process to tender. Blunkett lists those able to submit tenders and fails to mention local authorities. Subsequently Tristram Hunt has said that local authorities would be included. Big deal! That means that local authorities will have the formal possibility of setting up new schools but only if they come out on top of a marketised tendering process. This approach is replicated across other areas of policy such as rail in which Labour is saying that it will treat public bodies on a par with private ones. Is that really what Labour members want? Is that really a break with the past? Is it really a revival of localism? Conference delegates should ask themselves these questions.

There is more. The DSS would be responsible for all local schools i.e. those set up by and run within the framework of local authorities. So who would be in charge? This could mean a further diminution of local authority responsibility and involvement. This and many other key questions are left unaddressed by this document.

Delegates should remember that the last Labour government set up academies outside of the framework of local authorities. When the Tories came back they found this an ideal model to run with and to diminish local democratic influence further. If I am right about the possibilities behind the all the “local” talk then a Labour government elected on this basis would set up structures which would again both diminish local authority involvement in education and provide a future Tory government with the instruments needed to push forward with its anti-democratic and privatising agenda. Is this really what Labour members want? Is it what the general public wants?

One Comment

  1. David Pavett says:

    Discussion about education attracts so little attention in Labour circles that I am in the sad position of commenting on my own piece!!!

    I just wanted give a link to the document which is the subject of my comments above. The entire 2014 NPF Annual Report is available to Labour Party members on Membersnet under Party Activity/Agenda 2015. Education and Children, which is contained within that report, can be downloaded separately from here.

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