I’ve been trying to understand what David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ is all about and, finally, I thought I’d grasped it. It’s about people taking charge of their own lives, having a bigger say in how their local services are run and – where they wish to – running things themselves. At least, I thought it was, until I looked at the Lib-Con proposals for Academy schools.
You could say (and I have) that the driving force behind the ‘Big Society’ is an ideological one – the Tories and the right of the Liberal Democrat party don’t like the state and want to pay less taxes – rather than a genuine belief in harnessing people power to improve public services. My concern, set out in a previous blog, is that the ‘Big Society’ is more of a mirage than any kind of miracle cure.
But, for now, let’s take the ‘Big Society’ at face value as something radical designed to put people (not politicians) at the heart of things. In this case, let’s say ‘the heart of things’ is the local primary school.
The Lib-Con coalition agreement is big on ‘parent power’ – they get a mention four times in the short section on schools. It suggests throughout that parents are right at the heart of educational reform.
So, you would assume, in a ‘Big Society’,that parents will have a say in how their school is run; that they would – at least – be asked their opinion before their child’s school underwent anything approaching a radical upheaval. Wouldn’t you?
Not according to the new Academies Bill.
Fiona Millar has been a long-standing critic of the Academy programme (and a very active supporter of the state school system) and she has highlighted some worrisome provisions in the Lib-Con Academies Bill, particularly the complete lack of engagement with parents.
I had a good look at the ‘Explanatory Notes’ which accompany the Academies Bill to see if Millar’s claim were right. Probe not too deeply and you find the mechanism for a school becoming an Academy. Here it is in all it’s simplicity: the Head and the Governing Body of an ‘Outstanding’ school write to the Secretary of State and the Secretary of State writes back to say ‘go ahead’.
That’s it – an exchange of letters.
No need to consult with parents, let alone secure their agreement. Technically, a school wouldn’t even need to inform parents before applying for Academy statues. This seems at odds with the ‘Big Society’ – I thought we, the people, were in charge?
Yes, governing bodies have parent representatives, but such a significant change shouldn’t be agreed behind closed doors. Why should other non-governor parents be excluded from this process? Are their views unimportant? What if they object – what mechanisms do they have to challenge the Academy application? I expect they have two choices – move their child to another school (with all the disruption that involves) or, ahem, set up their own free school.
The other major fault-line in this is the removal of local councils from the process. As with parents, there is no requirement for a school to consult with (or even inform) their local authority. When a school becomes an Academy local authorities are ‘instructed’ by the Secretary of State to immediately cease maintenance and ‘control’ of the school. You can read all this for yourself – see the Explanatory Notes for the Bill here.
Whatever your view of local councils, they are local entities, run by elected local councillors, who often live in the locality (forgive the repetition – I’m just trying to establish a point), so it seems counter to the idea of a ‘Big Society’ to establish a stronger relationship between the centre (Whitehall) and the school, rather than ‘the local’ and the school.
This looks like a deliberate move, to help the Conservatives by-pass Labour-run councils. In other words, it’s about politics, not about local democracy and decision-making. It will be interesting to see how Liberal Democrat councils respond to this side-swipe (it’s also important to note the pejorative use of the word ‘control’ when describe the relationship between local authorities and schools; it contains no hint of the job good local authorities do to support and improve schools).
If the Academies Bill is anything to go by the ‘Big Society’ has got very little to do with people (or parent) power. Looks like I’m back where I started; still confused about the ‘Big Society’!