Local authorities once ran English schools; Covid shows we need them back

One day we will get an inquiry into Covid, and two features of its (mis)management will almost certainly be highlighted. The first is the failure to delegate more responsibility for controlling the disease to a local level. The second is the performance of an incoherent maze of public and private providers in everything from providing PPE to the woefully inadequate £12bn test-and-trace system.

The substandard test-and-trace effort is led by Dido Harding, an old friend of the former prime minister David Cameron, who happens to be married to a Tory MP. Its executive committee is made up of representatives of car companies and supermarkets, with only one public health expert. Consultants are paid up to £7,000 a day, at a time when the cost of extending free school meals provision was for many Tory MPs apparently too much to bear. It is hard to imagine any other public sector institution getting away with raking in so much cash, while being exposed as so second rate.

But we are where we are, thanks to decades of mistrust of local government, and the “private good/public bad” ethos that pervades every aspect of government policy, including education. The uncomfortable truths Covid-19 has exposed about childhood inequalities and the nature of our exam system should not distract from confronting how the urge to centralise and privatise has affected schools.

Until the late 1980s, the education secretary had only four significant powers over schools: removal of wartime air raid shelters, approval of the opening or closure of schools, numbers of students admitted to teacher training, and the size of the school building programme.

Today’s incumbent has thousands of powers, and the expectation in most schools is that “guidance” will come from central rather than local government, graphically illustrated by the Department for Education’s endless and often confusing edicts during the pandemic.

Near breaking point: headteachers worn down by ‘non-stop Covid crisis’

Meanwhile, thanks to Michael Gove, now also enmeshed in the Covid response, more than 40% of all schools and 80% of secondaries are directly run from Whitehall under the academies programme. A huge shift in power has taken place from schools, paradoxically under the guise of more autonomy, as well as from local to central government.

Hand in glove with that trend has been an obsession with the entrepreneurial spirit of the private sector. This started with the early academy sponsors, through the now marginalised free schools programme, to a new breed of headteachers who quickly worked out that they, too, could be business people.

Remember the £400,000-a-year head of Durand academy, Sir Greg Martin, who added a private leisure centre to his school portfolio, set up a charitable trust, to which the DfE carelessly donated millions of pounds of public property, then formed several private management companies to service its wider empire?

By the time regulators had caught up, Martin had registered a dating agency at the school’s address and had bought and opened a low-cost boarding school in Sussex branded the “Eton of the state sector”. Even now, four years after Durand trust was supposedly wound up, its charitable arm is still arguing over compensation for the return of public property it should never have been given in the first place.

This may be an extreme case, but it is only because of coronavirus-dominated news that we are spared a regular trickle of similar stories from the school sector. Trusts wound up because of “related party transactions”; schools left floundering without “owners”, or handed in secret to different providers; government ministers with their own academy chains.

And are we any better off? The hollowing out of local services as more power has rolled inwards to central government, or outwards to legions of private and semi-private providers, has almost certainly degraded councils’ ability to act for their most vulnerable pupils and families.

Study after study has suggested that diversifying provision in this way has made little overall difference to performance, and the achievement gap between the best- and worst-off children is stubbornly refusing to close. Artificial distinctions between school type are bordering on the absurd as everyone grapples with a tsunami of identical challenges.

At the height of the lockdown, polling suggested almost two-thirds of people were very or fairly satisfied with the way their local council was supporting them. It turned out that councils, schools and other local services were the innovators when it came to providing food, company, support, laptops and some local test-and-trace systems that put the private contractor Serco to shame by doing what local government does best: knowing its community.

It was the failure of some local education authorities that prompted this transfer of power to central government all those years ago, but now the boot is on the other foot. It is government that falls short, with its armies of consultants, outsourced contracts, and jobs for mates. Any lessons learned from the pandemic will have relevance much further afield than this current crisis may suggest.

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