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LABOUR gets it. The launch of “Democratising Local Public Services: A Plan For Twenty-First Century Insourcing” is a game changer.
John McDonnell spoke about how Thatcher forced compulsory competitive tendering on councils. Over the last 40 years governments of all persuasions bought into the idea that “private” was good, “public” was bad. This inevitably led to “the outsourcing scandal, which has seen private companies rip off the taxpayer, degrade our public services and put people at risk whilst remaining wholly unaccountable to the people who rely on and fund these services.”
So this break with the existing orthodoxy will be welcomed by public-sector workers and citizens. Outsourcing has allowed employers to cut workers’ terms and conditions in the search for ready profits. But of course, the true motives of the elite were hidden, dressed up in waffle about “efficiency” and “value for money.”
In the education system the key buzzword was “freedom” for schools to spend money as they saw fit. This, it was argued, would allow individual schools to better meet the needs of their pupils and target money more efficiently. It hasn’t been like that.
Before the 1990s the Local Education Authority (LEA) was the employer of teachers in schools and central service staff — cleaners, cooks, advisory teachers, caretakers, educational psychologists, supply teachers, payroll and personnel services, IT support and so on. Strong LEAs acting as a central service provider had some downsides for sure. Sometimes bureaucracies were entrenched and inflexible, but as experience has demonstrated the pros clearly outweighed the cons.
Firstly, these arrangements encouraged fair recruitment practices and ensured that staff were suitably qualified. LEAs provided Teachers’ Centres where staff could go for advice, meetings and training. These created opportunities for teachers from different schools to meet and share good practice. Schools were not in competition with one another. Schools and staff from within an LEA and sometimes between LEAs worked together.
Sharing practical services also had advantages. Centrally provided services were able to avoid unnecessary duplication of back office functions and economies of scale. This meant better value for the taxpayer and left school leaders more able to concentrate on the task at hand: educating children.
But in 1988 the misleadingly named Education Reform Act (ERA) took the first steps in trashing this co-operative, integrated education system and that agenda has been pursued by all governments since. The ERA transferred many of the powers (including some financial powers) and responsibilities from LEAs to heads and nominally governing bodies.
It also gave the option for headteachers to go further and turn the schools they manage into Grant Maintained (GM) schools. GM schools got their funding directly from central government, bypassing the local authority completely. The funds given to GM schools were then deducted from local authority budgets.
Once headteachers were given control of schools‘ budgets and the “opportunity” to opt out of using local authority provided services, the floodgates to outsourcing were opened. Scenting profitable opportunities, a host of consultants and companies targeting the lucrative education market were ready to pounce.
This change to the way money was provided for central services had a devastating effect on local authorities. Once a certain tipping point was reached, it was no longer viable to provide many school services as the authorities could no longer be sure of finances year to year.
Inevitably, over time central services diminished, Teachers’ Centres closed, central service staff were made redundant, years of capacity, experience and expertise lost. This in turn made it much easier to convince schools to opt out entirely and become semi-privatised academies and join unaccountable multi-academy trusts.
Meanwhile the business model operated by the private companies that filled the gap relied on cutting conditions and wages to boost profitability. And make no mistake — the potential for profit is huge.
So what should a radical reforming Labour government do to tackle outsourcing in education?
One measure would be to abolish the academy system, which as we have seen is particularly prone to abuses related to privatisation.
For example, there is a disturbing tendency for contracts to go to friends and families of managers and governors, and for managers to pay themselves exorbitant salaries. But this in itself would not be enough, as the root problems can be traced back to the structure of school governance and procurement created by the 1988 Act.
These changes must be reversed. Newly empowered and democratically accountable local authorities need to be the default provider of school services within a particular area. Central funding and resource allocation will therefore need to ensure that local authorities can build up the skills and know-how needed.
At the 2018 Labour Party conference a major step forward was taken with the commitment to end the academies programme and establish an integrated and locally accountable school system. Since then the Socialist Education Association (SEA), working with academic and legal experts, has developed a strategy for achieving this goal which could be put into effect from day one of a Labour government.
The SEA paper “Restoring a democratically accountable school system” sets out a coherent plan for implementing this and is referenced in the SEA motion going to Labour Party conference this year.
This motion will, if passed, firm up Labour Party policy around academies and outsourcing in education.
Its implementation will make it easier for trade unions to organise and negotiate and will lead to improvements in the working conditions of many public-sector workers. It will reintegrate school education services and facilitate schools once again to work together, co-operating rather than competing.
I urge all CLPs and affiliated bodies to consider prioritising and supporting the motion.
The creation of newly empowered local authority education committees offers a reforming Labour government an opportunity to improve and democratise the education service, tackle profiteering and waste and promote social inclusion and equality.
But this can only happen if a determined effort is made to reverse the mistakes of the past. Taking back democratic control and promoting public ownership of central services is the essential first step.
Conference notes: It has now become obvious that Multi Academy Trusts (MATs) and even stand-alone academies are a charter for profiteering and even at times outright corruption, with lucrative contracts handed to family and friends. It is also true that too many private companies are providing services to schools that could be better provided in-house. The result is public money meant for front-line educational services finding its way into the pockets of private individuals.
1. The commitment announced at the last conference, to consult on and establish a new regulatory framework for schools, to ensure that all schools follow the same rules, with schools being regulated by statute, rather than thousands of individual contracts.
2. The paper “Academies, autonomy, equality and democratic accountability: Reforming the fragmented publicly funded school system in England” (Wolfe and West) and the document “Restoring a democratically accountable school system” from the SEA setting out a coherent plan for implementing this pledge.
3. The commitment made by John McDonell in February 2018 when he declared Labour’s intention to “properly fund local authorities,” “bring services back in house” and “strengthen local democracy.”
Conference believes the Labour Party should now commit to ensuring:
1. Local Authorities establish reformed, democratically accountable local education committees with stakeholder representation.
2. That all publicly funded schools be brought back under the control of these new local education committees.
3. The newly empowered local education committees will be the default providers of school services and will be appropriately funded.
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