2019 03 – Letter on School Performance

School Performance, Accountability and Governance.

Christopher Winch

Second Part of Open Letter to Angela Rayner and Rebecca Long-Bailey.

The 1944 Education Act ushered in a ‘national system of education, locally administered’. But this phrase concealed the fact that Local Authorities (LAs) had enormous discretionary powers over education, including funding through the Block Grant, control of the curriculum, the appointment of teachers, pedagogical methods and allocation of pupils to schools. While the intention was admirable, the powers vested in Local Authorities were more than they could cope with. There were unacceptable variations in funding due to the discretion that LAs had over how the grant was spent. Rarely, if ever were the curricular powers of the LAs exercised because LAs were incapable of doing so. Furthermore, unacceptable interventions in teaching methods, something LAs are not capable to make judgements about, were often made. The 1944 Act got the balance between national and local authority over education wrong, but it is obvious that localities should have a larger degree of control over their schools and colleges than they do at present. Labour has a chance to get this right.

Conservative governments since the time of Thatcher sought to deprive LAs of their powers, culminating in a move to practically remove all control from them in the aborted 2016 White Paper inappropriately called ‘Educational Excellence Everywhere’. The really serious stripping of control from LAs started with the Academy programme instituted by Labour in the early noughties and intensified into a drive to remove and privatise education under Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan. Academies are publicly funded but privately controlled schools, usually grouped into Multi-Academy Trusts (MATS). These are controlled by shadowy bodies of trustees nominally accountable to Regional School Commissioners appointed by the government. Weak accountability arrangements mean that the scope for financial abuse is considerable and there have been numerous scandals. The Public Accounts Committee’s report into the antics of the Durand Academy and Bright Tribe MATs lifts the rug on the creepy crawly practices of many of these organisations.

MATs are not obliged to report on the finances of individual schools, nor do they have to provide a governing body for each school. They are charitable bodies, set up by members who appoint trustees who run the schools through governing bodies (if they wish to) and headteachers. Elections don’t come into it. Members are like shareholders of a private company except that they are not supposed to make a profit. However, lax rules regarding the contracting out of services has the potential to lead to widespread abuse. Excessive salaries and absurd payoffs are not unusual. MATs are not confined to particular geographical areas but can be spread across the country and thus cannot replicate the geographical coherence of LAs. The DfE has the power to assign a school to a MAT of its own choosing if that school is deemed inadequate and parents and the local authority have no say in the matter. As well as having the potential for abuse, there is no evidence that, taken as a whole, MATs do any better than LA schools and many do worse. Thus 7,500 schools are now academies, 72% of secondaries and 27% of primaries, consuming £20 billion of public funding every year. They control their curricula, pedagogic methods, appointment and dismissal of staff and have autonomy over their finances. They are less competent than local authorities and have even more control over the running of their schools than LAs did under the 1944 Act and subsequent amendments.

A National Education Service should ensure that there is equitable funding for schools, based on need. Schools should have the explicit aim of preparing children to take part in their cultural heritage, become citizens and eventually make an economic contribution to their society. There should be a national curriculum which all schools should follow which is designed to fulfil these aims. While literacy and numeracy are the foundation of future success, they cannot be allowed to become obsessions which crowd out the practical, sporting and aesthetic elements of the curriculum. Within limits teachers should be able to choose their own teaching methods based on available evidence for what is likely to be effective. These methods should not be based on fads imposed by misguided enthusiasts. Teaching methods should only be prescribed by the government when it is evident that schools are unable to teach parts of the curriculum and the government should avoid this happening by making sure that competent teachers are appointed, that they stay in teaching and become experts and leaders in their own right. This means having a coherent teacher education policy, which the current government palpably does not have.

The Academy policy is incompatible with these aims and Labour should take steps to place schools under the direction of local authorities, whose responsibility it should be to ensure that sufficient resources are provided to fulfil educational aims, to manage the teaching force in their jurisdiction and to allocate children to appropriate schools and colleges. Thus Academies and MATS should have their charitable status terminated and their members relieved of their rights. They should return to the democratic control of local authorities under a better balance between the national and the local run by governing bodies which represent employees, the LA, parents and the broader community including trade unions. The national inspectorate Ofsted should have its remit changed to ensure that all schools observe minimum standards of progress in learning, spend public money responsibly in pursuit of educational aims, follow the national curriculum and ensure that children are properly taught. They should not be making fine-grained judgements about what teaching methods a school should employ.

It is understandable that the public and parents should be concerned about the performance of their local schools. However, no method has yet been devised that can give meaningful comparisons between schools that are stable for more than a year, once pupil characteristics have been taken into account. Trying to devise methods that reliably do this has proved to be a wild goose chase over the last 40 years and should now be abandoned. It would be advisable to re-introduce an institution created by the Wilson government of 1974-6 called the Assessment of Performance Unit, which carried out light sampling of the performance within the system and produced digests of the standards of work that could be expected from pupils. These could, in their turn, be used as materials for the professional development of teachers. Its main aims were to “promote the development of methods of assessing and monitoring the achievement of children at school, and to seek to identify the incidents of under‑achievement” The APU was killed off when the accountability approach introduced in the Education Reform Act of 1988 came in. However, since that approach has had mixed results the time is right to revisit a smaller scale and less intrusive way of monitoring the performance of the education system as a whole.


One of the main problems with English education is the close association of educational progress with social class. This is not the whole story as there is plenty of evidence that the children of recent migrant communities often manage to do very well within the system as it exists. However, the evidence that a good social class mix in schools is beneficial to overall progress is very strong. There is also evidence from the United States that careful political work resulting in school zoning decisions that ensure such a mix in school intakes can boost performance overall and not lead to middle class resentment. The preliminary work here must come from local Labour politicians, but the national party has an important role to play in promoting such initiatives.

Then there is the vexed question about qualifications and what is appropriate in a situation where all young people have to continue in education until the age of 18. You probably won’t recall that David Miliband and others advocated a broader exit qualification at 18+ than the current A levels as long ago as 1991, but this and the subsequent Tomlinson recommendations were firmly squashed by both Labour and Tory governments afraid to disturb the A level ‘gold standard’. As you are probably aware, Robert Halfon (Tory Chair of the Commons Select Committee on Education) launched a proposal on Monday the 11th February to reform 18+ qualifications, proposing a broad exit qualification that preserves breadth of study and integrates aesthetic and vocational subjects. This is a bold post-Brexit move, partly designed to address shortages of skilled labour that are likely arise when we leave the EU as well as to provide a really good offer for young people who do not wish to go to university. I didn’t see either of you at this event nor did the Labour Party appear to make any impression in the ensuing discussion. This is not surprising when there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of thinking about these issues in the highest policymaking circles of the party. Do we really want to allow the Tories to be doing the constructive thinking that needs to be done, particularly on a topic of such interest to working people and their families? I was worried by the lack of engagement by you and the rest of the party policy elite.

One final point about a national education service. The existence of independent schools will always undermine the aim of securing a first class national system of education. In any case the complete abolition (as opposed to the regulation) of private schools  is probably too intrusive a step against the right of parents to educate their children according to their wishes. There is, however, no need to subsidise the practice of buying advantages in life for some children at the expense of the prospects of the rest. Labour should make this clear and remove charitable status for independent schools except for some very special cases where it can be shown that buying privilege is not even a secondary aim of the schooling provided. It is offensive that an organisation can enjoy the privileges of a charity and, at the same time, be a way of entrenching the power of an already privileged group within the society.