Democratisation: Defend and Extend Democratic Education Policy

Democracy is ultimately about accountability. The current model of education in the UK was deliberately built around the claim that schools, colleges and universities will be accountable through a mixture of competition and accountability to ‘stakeholders’: an incoherent and fragmentary form of ‘market democracy’. This has proved to be a failure right across the piece and failed to deliver successful outcomes for students, parents, educators and the wider community. Sadly the neo-liberal agenda, which developed piecemeal over decades was promoted by Labour and well as Conservative and Liberal Democrat politicians. So it was a major democratic step forward when the 2019 Labour Party conference made clear that it would want an incoming  Labour government  to:  

  • Stop all academisations and the opening of academies and free schools  
  • Ensure Local Authorities establish reformed, democratically accountable local education committees with stakeholder representation.  
  • Ensure all publicly funded schools be brought back under the control of these new local education committees.  
  • Ensure the newly empowered local education committees will be the default providers of services and will be appropriately funded. 

These demands are the key to beginning to develop a truly comprehensive National Education Service (NES). 

We need to be clear that realistically no other progressive reforms can be achieved nationally without simultaneously reversing the structural changes made since the Education Reform Act was passed in 1988, and a complete programme of nationalisation and democratisation is implemented in schools, colleges, universities, central service providers and local authorities.  It will be a massive undertaking for an incoming Labour Government and in order to achieve it the Labour Party and all those who want to see a truly comprehensive national education system need to work to change the accepted narrative of the last 30 years. 

It’s at best lazy to say, as some have, that parents/the public don’t want this change and so the Labour Party are just going to accept structures as they are and try to work within them. The Labour Party needs to be proactive and show why structural change is necessary and have a coherent realistic plan. In November last year Wes Steeting said “In my constituency I’ve got local authority schools, free schools, academies, I’ve got a grammar school, I’ve got independent schools that aren’t far away – and the interesting thing is, whether I am walking into a local authority school or a free school or an academy, the name above the door matters less than what goes on inside the building.”  But of course anyone who has had anything to do with the school system over the last couple of decades understands that without proper regulation and democratic accountability we can’t really know or influence what does go on behind that school gate.   

The 1988 Education Act began the process of simultaneously centralising and deregulating the  education system.  While government rhetoric applauds the freedom deregulation affords, by centrally controlling funding and so called “standards” through OFSTED and league tables, innovation , cooperation and teacher professionalism has actually been stifled.  By forcing schools to compete against each other for pupils by linking funding to pupil numbers rather than need, introducing league tables and so called “parental choice” deregulation means that the curriculum will more often than not be tailored by management to maximise results rather than actually providing a balanced and satisfying curriculum that develops each pupils self esteem and encourages every child to maximise their potential and love of learning.  

Parents need to be made aware of this. They need to know that deregulation means that headteachers can cut costs by employing cheap inexperienced or unqualified “teachers” while funds meant for frontline educational services are actually wasted on excessive “benefits” for managers working in the school system or consultants providing services privately to schools which could easily be provided in house through local authority organised provision. Only by bringing all educational provision back into the remit of democratically reformed local authorities would the public have transparency on funding, ensure a return to nationally negotiated pay and conditions for school staff and ensure a properly qualified teacher in every classroom. 

So in the lead up to the next general election the LP needs to be changing the narrative and demonstrating to the public why these changes need to be made but in tandem with this they need to be developing a coherent and staged strategy to achieve these changes. It will not be possible to reverse 30 years of structural change overnight or rebuild the capacity and expertise which used to exist in the Local Education Authorities (LEAs), or develop a more responsive form of democratic oversight within Local Authorities.  But just because the structural changes needed will be difficult to achieve doesn’t mean they are not absolutely necessary. 

Some time ago the Socialist Education Association (SEA) working with academic and legal experts produced a paper “Restoring a democratically accountable school system which sets out a coherent plan for schools to break free of Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) and return to the local authority. If implemented this would be a great first step but in itself would not be not enough. As the root problems can be traced back to the structure of school governance and procurement created by the 1988 Act the Labour Party need to build on this work instigated by the SEA and plan how to develop, fund and empower truly democratically accountable Local Authorities who will be the default provider of school services so schools no longer need to buy in services from private companies. Funding, training and resource allocation will need to be provided to ensure that Local Authorities can build up the skills and know-how needed. The creation of newly empowered Local Authority Education Committees would enable a reforming Labour government to improve and democratise the education service, tackle profiteering and waste and promote social inclusion and equality. 

In addition to establishing local democratic oversight a truly forward thinking Labour Party needs also to plan for democratisation of the workplace too.  Education workers, especially classroom teachers have a unique contribution to make to the school decision making process and school structures should facilitate this. The Labour Party need to show how schools will be facilitated to move away from the CEO and tick box model and become vibrant, innovative workplaces where teachers professionalism is respected and used. Governing bodies should be truly representative of the school community and have genuine oversight of the work going on in individual schools, supported by a well resourced and expert local education authority. 

The Labour Party needs to have the will to maintain and build on the education policies passed at the 2019 party conference, be bold enough to tackle the accepted narrative of the past decades and present a vision of an National Education Service which not only provides a route to academic success but helps all individuals to gain self esteem, job satisfaction, understand their civic responsibility and lead healthy, productive lives. 

This is a moment of decision for the Labour Party .  Will it return to the existing orthodoxies and seek to appease dominant vested interests such as academy chain CEOs, public sector bureaucrats and business groups; or, will it continue along the progressive path established in 2019? Given the abandonment by the current leadership of numerous ” pledges” the signs are not good but nevertheless it is essential that we learn the lessons of the past few decades of failure and develop policies that put equality, transparency and democracy at their centre. 

Author: Mel Griffiths, SEA Chair
Edited by Joseph Cowling, Digital Communications Officer, SEA

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