What would a Remain vote mean for the Department for Education and schools? Schools Week asked Amy Finch for her predictions
In the event of Remain, it will be business as usual for most of the government. The prime minister will continue to drive his “life chances” strategy, and the chancellor will push forward on his “devolution revolution”. But business is pretty unusual at the Department for Education right now.
Nicky Morgan has just embarked on a reform programme even more radical than her predecessor’s. It has divided the Commons, but not neatly between party lines. The recent concession on full academisation has only just kept her own party’s rebellion at bay.
The Opposition could have more in common with the chancellor than Morgan does
To neutralise resistance to her reforms, Morgan will need to resolve two tensions. The first is about parental involvement in education. Removing the requirement for parent governors was the second-most controversial issue of the education white paper. It led Lucy Powell, the shadow education secretary, to claim that parents’ voices were being relegated. That is a criticism that any Conservative politician would hate to hear, even more so from the left.
Some Conservatives have a similar concern, believing academy chains too big and corporate to accommodate parents’ demands. Where is the innovative, small-scale, parent-led approach that free schools have pioneered? To them, free schools have an easily communicable role for parents in the setting-up of new schools. However, free schools have been assigned to fix other problems, such as lack of school places, rather than specifically as a means to engage parents. Even Powell has said: “[The] government’s original concept of a free school is all but dead. The Tories have all but abandoned the concept of parent-led schools.”
Re-establishing free schools as a means to involve parents and challenge existing schools could help Morgan to brush these criticisms aside. Yet there are other ways to enhance the parent voice. The education white paper floated the idea of parents petitioning regional school commissioners (RSCs) for their child’s academy to change chain, but this could result in destructive rather than constructive parental involvement. Giving parents more democratic control over who presides on the academy or academy chain governing body, or in the election of RSCs, could be one way to involve parents more.
The second and related tension to be resolved is around local control of schools. Across other public services, such as health, social care, criminal justice and welfare, the government is moving towards greater devolution. About £6 billion has been given to Greater Manchester to integrate health and social care. There are plans to pilot the government’s disability employment services, the health and work programme, in ten local councils. In education, however, the vision is that local councils will no longer be involved in either funding or providing schools.
Many welcome the split between “purchaser” and “provider” in schools, pointing to the conflicts of interest created by an organisation that both runs and is accountable for delivering something. Yet there is an inconsistency between the current schools policy and the approach taken by many other departments, driven by the chancellor’s devolution revolution. RSCs, unlike commissioners in the NHS, do not have formal commissioning powers, such as routine budgets and contracts with schools. The Labour party has said it would like local government to have control of school place planning, admissions and the building of new schools. This could give the Opposition more in common with the chancellor than Morgan does.
Rebooting parental involvement and redesigning the role of local government will be key to the politics of reform following a vote to Remain. Some may not think it is necessary from a policy perspective. Parents maintain the ultimate arbiters of school quality through choice and competition, albeit with limitations on both sides, it could be argued. Some central power has already been given to RSCs, one could add. But these policies are too nuanced to counteract the splashes hitting the headlines after the white paper. Solutions to both these issues will be necessary to make Morgan’s school reforms possible and keep enough people on side.