2019 04 – Letter on Education

Dear Labour Affairs,

 I thought that the second instalment of Chris Winch’s series of articles about a proposed education policy for Labour was generally excellent, but had one reservation about it based on local experience. One of the arguments which he very ably makes is that many of the groups of Academies which have been set up over recent years have performed worse than the local authority schools which they replaced, while being milked of funding by the trusts running the academies. He advocates returning schools to local authority control. This argument is doubtless valid generally, but surely depends on the merits of local authorities. Local authorities obviously vary greatly. In particular, those dominated over long periods of time by one political party may become undesirably set in their ways. The account below, based on my local experience, makes this point.

I live in Middlesbrough, a working class town in the north-east, which has had an overwhelming the Labour Council since the Second World War. It typically has just two or three Conservative, Liberal or independent councillors. Very few of the councillors have to compete for votes, and by the 1980s Council was dominated by a political machine. Many members seem to have focused on maximising their expenses claims. Many of the ward Labour Parties were tiny, and dominated by particular families.

The educational standards of the town’s secondary schools were very poor. GCSE results in the three schools in the catchment area for my children fluctuated between 23% A-C grade passes and 30%, well below the national average which at that time was around 40%. These schools included most of the town’s more middle-class parents – teachers, small business people, police personnel and the like. Results in Middlesbrough’s other secondary schools were below the standard.

The year that my eldest daughter was choosing a secondary school, it was announced that Middlesbrough was having one of the Thatcher government’s City Technology Colleges imposed on it. The catchment area of Macmillan CTC, as it was known, included some of the middle class area of the town, but also some of its most deprived areas. The CTC aimed to take in “enterprising” children, but otherwise to reflect the range of social class and ability across its catchment area. The College caused a great deal of loathing in the local Labour Party. After all, it was an imposition of the Thatcher government, which had been busy devastating local industry. The CTC Principal pledged that the College’s GCSE results would equal the national average, which was felt to be a rash pledge, but was actually achieved.

Over the next few years the level of loathing for the CTC gradually diminished, and educational standards in the town were raised as a result of healthy competition.

The point of the above brief history should be pretty clear. Prior to the advent of some competition, the local authority in Middlesbrough was unchallenged, and complacently running thoroughly substandard schools. Local authorities in some areas are still very attached to their grammar schools, and could be expected to be very resistant to many Labour policies. Are all the trusts running the academies dismally bad? Overall, in other words, there is perhaps a case for some diversity.

Mark Cowling