For Government, it’s all about devolution at the moment. Even if you put to one side George Osborne’s obsessive Northern Powerhouse proposal, the idea of devolution runs through almost every government department.
The problem, however, is that it appears to be devolution regardless of what the public thinks. At the turn of the decade, there was precious little support for the idea of city or metro mayors, even with the promise of new powers and spending for regions, when it was put to public votes.
And last week came news of perhaps the greatest devolution of all – making all schools become academies. It’s an idea which the trade unions already hate, and the far-left Labour Party of 2016 is sure to fight tooth and nail against (although it’s fair to assume the most effective opposition will come from the select committees and the House of Lords).
Education secretary Nicky Morgan described forcing all schools to become academies as ‘devolution.’ But as with so many forms of devolution proposed by the current government, it comes with next to no built in accountability. Schools will report directly to Whitehall, run as self-contained businesses, as happens now for existing academies.
Local councils which have a significant say in the running of schools at the moment are effectively cut out of the loop. So local accountability will go out of the window – and that’s a huge problem for us as journalists. The fact parents will no longer have a right to have a representative on school governing bodies gives an idea of what the Government thinks about accountability in schools.
As we’ve seen with the replacement of primary care trusts with clinical commissioning groups, when the Tories get their hands on things to restructure, the idea of making it easy to make these organisations accountable goes out of the window. (In fairness, Labour was rarely better when in power, having made it very easy for councils to meet behind closed doors in 2001 and then giving Foundation Hospitals the right to meet in private too).
The Liverpool Echo yesterday served up a brilliant example of how hard it is to cover schools which are academies. Reporter Tom Belger has been reporting on the decision by the only academy in Knowsley, near Liverpool, which offers A-levels to stop offering A-Levels.
The school, Halewood Academy, appears to consider itself above scrutiny and refused to talk to the Echo, instead referring to a statement online. The local council, Knowsley, shrugged its shoulders as well it might – it has no say on what goes on at Halewood, despite the fact its borough will have no A-level provision.
Tom was pointed towards regional schools commissioners who are apparently responsible for making decisions about academies in their areas. There is next to no information on this role, and what there is is tucked away on the utterly useless .gov.uk website. The fact there are precisely zero FOI releases from the regional schools commissioners tells you how accountable they are. There’s no information on the decisions they make either.
North West commissioner Vicky Beer seemed surprised to be asked what her role was by Tom, and referred him to central government, as it was their decision. Which doesn’t sound very devolved, does it?
The final irony – if irony is the right word – is contained in a screen grab in Tom’s report – a petition against the A-level closure plans filed on the government’s petition website was rejected because ‘the government and parliament aren’t responsible.’
Without wishing to channel Richard Littlejohn, you really couldn’t make it up.
Hats off to the Liverpool Echo for allowing Tom to write up his experiences in such an engaging way. It’s a great example of what you can do when you break out of the traditional ways of story telling and actually lift the curtain on what we do, and how we often are thwarted in our efforts.
The response to the Echo has been strong – thousands of shares on social media and intelligent, if strong, comments from readers.
Whether the government pays attention to this muddle is debatable – although my guess is no.
But for journalists across the country who are tasked with covering schools and education, the prospect looms large that Tom’s experience will become a daily occurrence if the Government doesn’t act to ensure accountability sits at the heart of its academy plans.