The editor of The Spectator isn’t the only person thinking about the prospect of Ed Miliband becoming the next Prime Minister. Eighty educationalists have signed a letter in the Daily Mail today warning about the danger of a future Labour government curtailing academy freedoms. They’re concerned about Ed Miliband’s pledge that Labour would reintroduce 'a proper local authority framework for all schools' – which sounds a lot like placing all taxpayer-funded schools back under local authority control.
The letter-writers flag up two freedoms they are particularly concerned about: the freedom that academies and free schools have to set their own pay and conditions and the freedom they have over the curriculum.
They’re right to be worried. Labour has already said it will make it illegal for taxpayer-funded schools to employ teachers without Qualified Teacher Status or who are not working towards QTS, a policy that might have been written by the teaching unions who know that enlarging the pool of potential labour has weakened their bargaining power. It’s likely that a Miliband-led government would force all schools to adopt union-dictated pay and conditions as well.
When it comes to rowing back on curriculum autonomy, Labour has form. One of the first things Ed Balls did on becoming the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families in 2007 was to insist that all academies set up from that moment on would have to follow the national curriculum. He also tried to force those academies that were already open to teach the national curriculum, and only failed after a successful legal challenge.
As the co-founder of several free schools, I’m particularly alarmed by the prospect of a Labour government. Tristram Hunt has said that he wouldn’t try and shut down any of the existing free schools if he was Education Secretary or stop those in the pipeline from opening, but that’s hardly reassuring given the barrage of hostile comments emanating from Labour’s front bench. Miliband described free schools as 'the opposite of the thing we need' back in 2010, while Ed Balls said in the budget debate last month 'we are going to get rid of free schools'. He later clarified this – 'I meant new free schools' – but this was probably a deliberate 'gaffe', a coded message to those left-wing activists who have been campaigning against free schools from the beginning. Hunt himself has hardly been a stalwart supporter. In 2010, he described free schools as 'vanity projects for West London yummy mummies'.
Some people will think the signatories of the Daily Mail letter are being politically opportunistic – attempting to 'weaponise' academies and free schools when, in reality, Labour would do little to interfere with them. I wish I could be so sanguine. A Labour Education Secretary would come under a lot of pressure to chip away at the freedoms currently enjoyed by academies and free schools, both from the party’s union paymasters and the left of the Parliamentary party – MPs like Lisa Nandy, who can be seen here addressing a rally of the Anti-Academies Alliance, a Socialist Workers’ Party front that has been at the forefront of nearly every campaign against individual academies and free schools. To resist that pressure, the Education Secretary would need to be able to rely on the support of the Prime Minister, just as Ed Balls’ predecessors called on Tony Blair’s support when faced with opposition to the city academies programme. Blair was passionate enough about education reform to spend some political capital on defending his beleaguered education ministers, but I doubt Miliband would. We know from the fact that he failed to devote a single line to education in his 2013 conference speech that he has little interest in the subject. If he’s the next Prime Minister he will spend what little political capital he has on resisting internal pressure to abandon Labour’s austerity targets. He won’t waste any on defending education policies he has never believed in.
Ultimately, the reason I’m concerned is because the reforms initiated by Labour education ministers like Andrew Adonis and continued by Michael Gove, Nick Gibb, John Nash and Nicky Morgan have had a galvanising effect on England’s whole public education system, seeing standards rise across the board. Twenty-four per cent of those free schools inspected by Ofsted so far have been rated ‘Outstanding’, compared to 10 per cent of schools nationally, and, as the letter-writers point out, secondary schools that have converted to academy status out-perform other schools by a margin of almost 10 per cent. We know from the research carried out by Machin and Venoit, as well as Policy Exchange, that high standards in free schools and academies have a positive 'competition effect', encouraging under-performing neighbours to raise their game. That’s one of the reasons that there are now over a million fewer children being educated in failing schools than there were five years ago.
If you want to know what England’s education system would be like if it hadn’t been reformed, look no further than Wales. With no academies, no free schools, no league tables – nothing that isn’t rubber-stamped by the Welsh Labour Party and the teaching unions – is it any wonder that Wales has fallen behind England in the international league tables? As I’ve blogged about before, parental choice in Wales is limited to deciding whether to send a child to a school where lessons are taught in English or Welsh. The Welsh education system has been afflicted by what David Reynolds, an educationalist at the University of Southampton, describes as 'producerism's last hurrah'. Hardly surprising, then, that 26 per cent of the Welsh population over 16 have no recognised qualifications whatsoever, according to the 2011 census.
That’s the choice faced by England’s schools at this election – forward with the Conservatives, or backwards with Labour.