I have been thinking about where I would like my imaginary child to go to secondary school. Here is the exact question I have been trying to answer: Which school will be better for my daughter, the newly opened Academy or the local authority school? Here is the question the Tories (and, to a lesser extent, Labour) have been trying and partly succeeding to convince me to ask myself: Which school will be better for my daughter, the newly opened ‘free’ school with high standards of behaviour and tried and tested teaching methods or, the school with the restrictive curriculum that has been enslaved by a wicked local bureaucracy?
Why am I finding it so hard to answer my own question? The reason is, I believe, that in all of the debate surrounding Academies there is very little discussion about the actual benefit that schools receive as a result of being under local authority control. No information easily available to me, as a (pretend) parent, tells me how the local authority will actually help my child get a better education. With the Conservative plans to allow parents, businesses and social sector groups to open new schools, local authorities need to become much more adept at marketing themselves to parents if they are to continue attracting pupils to their schools.
Arguments in favour of local authority schools usually only support local authorities by default; they are criticisms of Academies, not positive affirmations of the part that local authorities play in providing the best possible education for local children. Prominent anti-Academies campaigner and Guardian journalist, Fiona Millar, argued earlier this month that, currently, “parents who have made a perfectly rational decision to stick with their local school are made to feel they are sacrificing their children on an altar of political correctness” and that for many parents, “a public validation, indeed celebration, of the local schools would bring with it a huge sigh of relief. No more worries about choice, tutors, long journeys, selection tests, the trauma of separating their children from their childhood friends.” But what is it that we would be “celebrating”? What is it that the local authorities provide that should encourage us to “validate” their schools?
A couple of years ago, the London borough of Tower Hamlets fought off a bid for a new Academy to be opened in the borough, sponsored by Goldman Sachs. The Council spokesman said (speaking to the BBC), "Our priority is always to secure the best possible standards for our young people. This is not a place where the excuse of deprivation is allowed to stand in the way of high aspirations. Since 1997 the percentage of young people achieving five or more good GCSEs has increased from 26% to 56%.” What he did not say is how the local authority helped pupils to achieve these results or make a clear argument about why the authority is best placed to continue the improvement.
An article in last Sunday’s Observer, on whether or not parents should be allowed to open schools, concluded that, “Those defending the status quo are backing a system that is deeply flawed.” My argument is that no-one is “defending the status quo”, just attacking the new schools being set up. This is a shame because many local authorities, like Tower Hamlets (which has very high levels of deprivation), have enjoyed real success in improving the schools under their watch.
According to a report by CfBT Education Trust, local authorities spend between 5 and 20 per cent of schools’ budgets on ‘central services’. As a parent I would be happy to hear this if a compelling case was made to me that the money is spent to improve my child’s education by, for instance, coordinating teacher training across the borough; or making facilities available that can be enjoyed by children from several schools; or even just getting best value for money. At the moment, however, the case is simply not being made.
If they are to continue to attract parents to their schools under a Conservative government when pupil intakes will not be guaranteed by a need to fill places, local authorities must (when they have a case) make their role in school success clear to parents. If they do not, then Gove’s casting of them as “complacent local bureaucracies” will be all too prevalent in parents’ minds as they ask themselves where they want their children to go to school.