Labour went into its first full party conference in two years with a new leader and shadow education team, but events in Brighton revealed the leadership is still dogged by the question of what to do about academies.
Announcements about school structures and how the “local democratic control” Sir Keir Starmer argued for last spring will be achieved were conspicuous by their absence from his first conference speech as leader.
And proceedings at two conference fringe events showed the party is still embroiled in a fierce battle with its grassroots over its policy on academies – or lack thereof.
Kate Green (pictured), shadow education secretary, and shadow schools minister Peter Kyle have both already made clear they don’t intend to meddle with successful academies. It seems almost certain the next manifesto will not propose whole-system change.
But at an event organised by the Socialist Educational Association, Green was applauded after a speech in which she acknowledged the “downsides” of a “fragmented” school system.
Speakers at the event included former shadow chancellor John McDonnell, who called for academies to be scrapped
Green wants ‘collaboration, not competition’
Green warned that competition between schools was leading to admissions and exclusions policies “which discriminate against more disadvantaged children”. Instead, collaboration between schools should be “rewarded”.
She also criticised the “frankly unacceptable sky-high pay of some of the chief executives of some of the academy trusts.
“I really hope that in terms of the problems that you’ve rightly identified from the fragmentation and marketisation and competition that’s in the system, that we can make haste on some of those, even without necessarily being able to do all of the destructuring and restructuring that, I think right now as we’re coming out of a pandemic, would not be parents’ priority.”
But tensions ran higher at an event organised by the Education Policy Institute and the ASCL school leaders’ union on “how to boost school collaboration in a partly academised system”.
At the event, although Kyle argued against full academisation, he also spoke of the benefits he had seen at Brighton Aldridge Community Academy, which he chaired before entering parliament, following its conversion, as well as the upsides of collaboration in some trusts.
His comments sparked anger among some delegates, including one who accused Kyle of trying to change Labour policy “without consultation”.
The 2019 Labour manifesto pledged to “end the fragmentation and marketisation of our school system by bringing free schools and academies back under control of the people who know them best – parents, teachers and local communities”.
Don’t get stuck in ‘perennial debate’, says Kyle
But Kyle said that “because we lost the last election, we are discussing education as we find it today, in the real world, not the world we would want it to be”.
He said Labour’s policy was being developed and he was “focused with a blank sheet of paper about what it’s going to take to get schools to improve so that no student is left behind.
“I want to look absolutely afresh at the landscape as we find it today. I want to see where excellence is, where the improvement is, and then put forward to the membership a set of policies that can learn from the best that’s out there. But it will be grounded in the reality of the system today.”
Kyle also pointed out that as an MP he had “fought Nicky Morgan and her putrid plan for universal academisation” because he had seen the “benefits” of conversion, but also knew the “limitations”.
But he said the party should “not get stuck in this perennial debate about this and accept we have learned a lot in ten years. We can’t go back in time, we are where we are.
“Let’s learn from the best where it’s out there and apply pragmatism going forward and rethink the role of local authorities, not just in schooling but the whole experience of young people.”
But speaking to Schools Week as the conference closed on Wednesday, Green admitted it was “well worth thinking about” the idea of allowing academies to choose to leave trusts when things go wrong and go back to council oversight.
She also supports Ofsted inspections of trusts, something she is “very keen to look at putting that into our plans for government”.
But she said there was a “bigger question about what are the underlying issues and how best can we set about a way of putting in place means to solve them that don’t involve us in years of destructuring and restructuring and legal argument”.
It remains to be seen what the party will put forward on academies in its next manifesto.