Andy Burnham and the too-vague really-lame education policy

“I will restore a local role in overseeing schools, rejecting the growing market of free schools and academies.”

That’s it. That’s Andy Burnham’s big school vision as outlined in his manifesto.

He will restore a local role in overseeing schools and new schools will not be academies.

What a weird thing to pledge. For a start, local authorities already retain a role. They are responsible for the safeguarding and strategic planning of education in their area. They can’t always do much about it, capped at the knees as they are from intervening too heavily in academies, but local authorities still play the role of a (fairly weak) overlord.

Also, many local authorities don’t have the capacity or desire to run new schools. Why should they have to when perfectly good charitable trusts are available to do the job?

Burnham also keeps talking about his belief in ‘comprehensive’ education as if it contrasts with academies. That’s silly. Comprehensives are schools that don’t select by ability or income. That’s it. Most academies are comprehensive. Some local authority schools are not. For example local schools whose pupils all have special educational needs. Does Burnham not believe in special needs schools?

What’s most frustrating though is that I think this line of his manifesto is actually hinting at something which he does believe, and which is important – but is currently lost in the rhetoric.

I think what he’s trying to say is this: the school system has become so complicated parents (and the public) no longer understand it.

I think he’s trying to say that the school system has become so complicated no-one understands it

Planning school places so that every child can be educated near their home is now a nightmare. The fracturing of schools into their own admissions authorities means that local councils who retain a responsibility for strategic planning neverthless had most of their powers stymied.

For parents, trying to understand who runs your kids’ school, and who you should complain to if you have a problem with it, can be as frustrating as trying to figure out which darn company runs the telephone line running broadband into your house.

School admissions has become a complicated mess. Weird rules abound about religion, whether or not you can run admissions tests, if you can charge a fee when parents accept their offer. All of this means that schools get away with shenanigans to keep out the hoi-polloi and the School Admissions Adjudicator has become almost powerless to stop them.

Transparency is dead. Why has a specific charity been decided to run a school? Why has one been allowed to give up a school to another provider? How good is a specific academy trust? No-one knows. The government continually refuses freedom of information requests and if the Education Bill passes in September “bureaucratic hurdles” such as, say, letting parents have a say on who will run their school will be nixed altogether.

And finally, while the academy system does have a lot going for it, if the government continues allowing academy leaders to buy services from their own profitable side projects using their schools’ funds, then it’s little wonder that the public will think academies are a corrupt system.

Burnham needs to say this. He needs to say that school policy has spiraled out of control. And he needs to outline specific solutions to put it back into order. (E.g. give place planning and admissions back to LAs, enforce transparency, stop school leaders buying their own products).

Soundbites are what you use if you care about winning. Policies are what you talk about if you care about changing the world.

Selling a big message is important. But go back to the 1997 New Labour pledge card and note its use of specific numbers. Read Blair and Blunkett circa 1996 and marvel at their use of data, of named examples, of absolutely precise interventions.

Soundbites are what you use if you care about winning. Policies are what you use if you care about changing the world. The reason people like Jeremy Corbyn is because they believe he wants the latter. Actual policies would enable the other hopefuls step out from his shadow.

Your thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *