London’s 33 boroughs have challenged the Government to change their policy on schools so that children get the chance of a better education. Tory Education Secretary, Michael Gove, wants to convert all 24,000 schools in the country into academies and then centralise control in his own hands. Quite simply, that will not work. The Department for Education is too remote to oversee so many schools and spot the warning signs of failure early enough to intervene and prevent a crisis developing.
I was delighted the proposals I put forward won support from all London’s borough leaders of all political parties. It’s important we remove the most damaging aspects of the Government’s reforms.
We want councils to hold schools to account for local communities by scrutinising their performance. If a school’s standards are slipping, or the school is coasting, councils should issue a warning notice and call the school’s leadership in to explain in public how they will turn things round. All schools, including free schools and academies, are publicly funded and they should all be publicly accountable.
London Councils predicts that by 2016 one in ten primary-age children in London will not have a permanent school place. That is a terrifying prospect for parents. We have offered to work with the Government to identify council-owned buildings and land that can be used for new schools. But this will be on condition that the Government does not impose inappropriate free-school providers on local communities, that new school buildings are suitable for educating children, that funding for new schools is prioritised for areas where the shortage of places is most severe, and that the Government itself makes surplus buildings and land available just like local councils will. At present the Government does not follow these common-sense principles in allocating funding to new schools.
We are also calling for data about how every school is performing to be published, including how they manage their finances and information about what happens to students after they leave school so parents can see how many end up in good jobs and how many go on to further or higher education. Without this information parents will remain unable to make informed decisions about which school to trust with their children’s education. It is unacceptable that free schools and academies are able to conceal information that other schools have to make public.
We want every school to have members of the local community on their governing body so there is a link between the school and the community it serves. And we believe it is important that every school takes its fair share of challenging students, including those with special education needs. It is wrong that, as things currently stand, some free schools and academies refuse to educate children like these.
Most parents I’ve spoken to were astonished these proposals are not already part of Government policy. But the fact is they’re not. The Government is so ideologically blinkered about education that they are throwing the baby out with the bathwater in a dogmatic attempt to remove councils from playing any role. What parents are finding is that Whitehall is too remote to oversee 24,000 schools, that you can’t empower parents by concealing data on how schools are performing, and at a time of financial austerity it makes no sense to open new schools in areas with enough places while denying children places in areas where the shortage is most severe. London’s councils’ proposals will put these things right. Let’s hope we can make Michael Gove listen to good sense because London’s children will suffer if he refuses.