Where I live, the local council is not highly regarded. Once, our borough was a byword for corruption and incompetence.
Today it’s only a byword for incompetence. The chumps down at the Town Hall struggle to perform even the most basic of tasks, for instance getting the dustbins emptied each week. The housing stock they built with self-congratulatory fanfare is now ugly, squalid and falling to pieces. There are potholes in the road so large they could serve as bear traps. We have no bears, though, in our part of south London – just foxes. Proliferating foxes. Someone from the council’s paramilitary wing came down our street the other day to shoot them. From practically point blank range, he missed.
The planning department bases its approach largely on the works of Kafka. Forget about developing that side return or doing a loft conversion. They will find a reason to say no. They even say no to their own schemes. The council is sitting on a huge brownfield plot, one big enough to bring the local housing waiting list down close to zero, if it were fully developed. But we are now entering our seventh year of community consultation, with not a single brick laid.
Not long ago, Ofsted inspected the council’s children’s services department. It wasn’t just the frontline social workers that were hammered: “A failure of leadership has resulted in the deterioration of almost all safeguarding services and services for looked-after children,” the inspectors said. It was one of the most critical reports anyone could remember. They couldn’t even look after children in care.
Now, picture an imaginary past where no one had given local authorities responsibility for schools. Now extend the thought into an imagined present where some politicians – the Labour Party, say – are coming up with the idea of handing over schools to the council. “You must be mad,” we’d say. “Those clowns can’t even organise street sweeping properly, their contract parking wardens are a law unto themselves, our replacement permits never arrive, we can’t possibly entrust our children’s education to them!”
And why on earth would anyone want to hand over the formation of young minds to an institution like local government, with its Buggins’s turns, its jobsworthery and bureaucratic sclerosis?
And yet, the Government’s sensible proposal to release schools from the anomalous position of being maintained by their local council by extending the freedoms of academy status to all, seems to have provoked widespread opposition.
The anti-academies movement is not a monolith. Parts of it may be just a Socialist Workers Party front, but there are other kinds of Trotskyite too. There are also quite a few of what Lenin called “useful idiots”, members of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour and some unaligned folk who are not too picky about their travelling companions.
The education departments in the universities, it appears, are particularly keen to halt the drive towards total academisation. Yet you never hear these same academics suggesting that universities should come under the control of the local council, do you?
Among the myths (or are they downright lies?) currently in circulation are that the wicked Tories have a hidden agenda. Turning schools into academies is just a stage on the way to total privatisation. Apparently it’s all down to the “neo-liberals” (you can always be sure that anyone using the word neo-liberal has long since lost touch with reality) wanting to hand over our schools to US corporate interests.
The problem with this particular propaganda meme is that academies and academy chains are not corporations. They are essentially charities, not-for-profit trusts, which have only one charitable end in view: running schools that deliver a broad and balanced curriculum. They cannot sell off the playing fields to unscrupulous property developers and trouser the cash. They cannot turn the science block into a casino.
Much venomous innuendo has been directed at the hedge-fund managers behind one of the biggest academy chains, suggesting that they must be in it for some long-term gain. The truth is that they are giving millions of pounds of their own money to the schools they run, not planning to take it out on the sly.
Launching her new white paper last week, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan said she was initiating “an historic devolution of power from local and central government to the best school leaders”. And she quoted the New York educationalist Joel Klein, who said that while “you can mandate adequacy, you cannot mandate greatness; it has to be unleashed”.
That gets to the heart of the academies project. Only releasing the teams of teachers and social entrepreneurs that make up academy trusts from local, tickbox accountability will spark the drive, energy and innovation needed to transform England’s classrooms. Academies can set aside the national curriculum and write their own. They can invent new approaches to teaching. They can hire their own staff and negotiate terms individually. They can focus on making kids smarter and developing their characters. None of this is at all in keeping with the municipal tradition.
Dennis Sewell is a contributing editor of the Spectator
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