UK: So What Did The Labour Party Conference Teach Us?

Last Updated: 19 October 2018
Article by Graham Shaw

We take a look here at what we can learn from the speech by the Shadow Education Secretary, Angela Rayner, to the Labour Party Conference.

Academies and free schools

The speech first promised to 'immediately' end the academies and free schools programmes. There would therefore be no new free schools or academy conversions under Labour. While this is unambiguous, the position is less clear for existing free schools and academies, as we see below.

Local authority control

Having given an unequivocal commitment to immediately end the academies and free schools programmes, the Shadow Education Secretary went on to say that Labour will 'allow academies to return to local authority control'. This would include existing free schools, having the same legal status as academies, and require a legislative change which, given the parliamentary pre-occupation with Brexit and depending on the timing and outcome of the next General Election, may not be forthcoming. It also indicates a discretion, not a compulsion, for academies and free schools to return to local authority control which is surprising given the Labour commitment to a National Education Service and the system fragmentation that would persist under a Labour government.

Failing trusts

The speech maintained the focus on academies by saying Labour would tackle the problem of trusts that fail but didn't give any detail on what it would do to address the issue.

Publicly funded schools

Angela Rayner compounded the ambiguity for existing academies and free schools when she said that Labour will 'bring all publicly funded schools back into the mainstream public sector, with a common rulebook and under local democratic control.' Would Labour therefore legislate to permit or compel existing academies and free schools to become schools maintained by the local authority? The position is unclear.

Co-operative schools

What is clear from the speech is that Labour sees co-operative schools as a means for parents and staff to launch and lead their own schools. As there would be no new free schools, these co-operative schools would be schools maintained by the local authority. Specifically, they would be foundation or 'trust' schools where the foundation or trust draws its members and trustees from different groups or constituencies and holds the freehold title to the school site on trust for the school. However, the creation of co-operative schools in this way would require legislative change to remove the 'free school presumption' which applies to any new school. As above, the parliamentary pre-occupation with Brexit and the timing and outcome of the next General Election, may mean the legislative change is not forthcoming.

School building programme

In concert with wider Labour policy, Angela Rayner went on to trumpet 'the most ambitious school building programme ever backed by eight billion pounds of investment' which some may view with concern given the cost of Building Schools for the Future under the last Labour government.

School places

According to the speech, Labour would also allow local authorities to build schools, which suggests local authorities would implement the school building programme referred to above, not the Education and Skills Funding Agency as is the case with the Priority Schools Building Programme.

Admissions

Angela Rayner also confirmed that local authorities would take back control of admissions from academy trusts, meaning the local authority would be the admission authority for academies alongside their role in co-ordinating admissions. The speech did not say whether the local authority would also be the admission authority for foundation and voluntary-aided schools, each currently their own admission authority, to make the local authority the admission authority for all schools in their area.

SEN and disabilities

The speech did confirm that Labour would lead plans to stop those with special educational needs and disabilities from falling out of the school system but didn't give any detail on the specific focus of these plans. The speech also confirmed a record investment in school buildings to make sure they are accessible but didn't attach a specific value to the investment. One might presume this would form part of the eight billion pound school building programme but this wasn't confirmed.

Early years

The speech reached its climax with a flurry of freebies, firstly free early education for all two to four year olds. This was accompanied by plans to reinvent 'our state nurseries' but without any further detail on what is envisaged. For example, while legislation would be required to return academies to 'state' control, there was no mention of whether this would extend to independent nurseries who receive central government funding for free nursery places

Further and higher

The Shadow Education Secretary then confirmed Labour would provide free further and higher education before concluding with a rallying cry to end austerity which, according to Theresa May's conference speech, is now over!

In summary

While giving a rousing speech for the party faithful, the Shadow Education Secretary raised more questions than she answered and leaves the sector with insufficient certainty as to what to expect from a Labour government not least in relation to how the significant initiatives are to be funded.

For Graham Shaw's article on the Conservative Party conference please click ' here'

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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