Daniel Zeichner – 2018 Speech on Primary School Academisation

Below is the text of the speech made by Daniel Zeichner, the Labour MP for Cambridge, in the House of Commons on 10 January 2018.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing the House the opportunity to consider the important issue of the academisation of primary schools in Cambridge. I will talk primarily about the necessity of both transparency and accountability of academy trusts and about the academisation process itself. The debate is timely, because just a few hours ago there was a meeting at St Philip’s C of E Aided Primary School in Romsey in my constituency to determine the school’s future after many months of uncertainty. It was local parents raising with me that process and the issues around it that caused me to take a particularly close interest in the case. The more I have seen of it and the more people I have spoken to, the more concerned I have become—hence the request for today’s debate.

I start by thanking those who brought the issue to my attention, who include not only local parents but the many people involved in local schools and the local educational system who have spoken to me over the past few weeks to explain the consequences of the process for the education system in my city and the surrounding area. I particularly thank Rachel Evans of the National Education Union, who has worked hard and carefully with parents and staff to try to achieve the best outcome for the school and the wider community.

Right at the outset, I want to say that I make no criticism of those involved locally, because I believe that they have all been doing their very best for the school, but it is the process they have been put through that causes me concern, and it should also trouble the Minister. Whatever one’s view of academies in general—I will come on to that—there must be something wrong with a process whereby parents, staff and the local community feel that they are just being informed about significant changes to a key local institution, but not involved in any meaningful way. They feel that it is being done to them, not with them. Schools are not businesses and are not privately owned—not yet, anyway. Schools are a key part of the fabric of our local communities, and we all know that they do better when they are a part of their community, with close parental involvement.

Although I am not an educationalist or an expert in this area, I was, like so many of us in Parliament, a school governor for many years. I was the chair of governors for a voluntary aided junior school in a rural market town for almost 10 years. I have known St Philip’s for a number of years, and it is a not a school that I would have had serious concerns about. It did experience a serious dip in results a couple of years ago and also had a problem when there was too long a delay in replacing an outgoing headteacher. That should interest the Minister, because he may want to reflect on why it takes so long to recruit good headteachers, particularly in high-cost areas such as Cambridgeshire—it is no easy task. But, as has been demonstrated by the swift recovery in results, the school clearly has a bright future, and I emphasise that point. I commend the many positive comments that parents made in their considered responses to the recent consultation, in which a strong view emerged that the school has improved dramatically. That leads to ​a frequently asked question: if the school is so improved, why the need for further change that might, in itself, be destabilising?

I do not criticise the interim executive board, which has been following its understanding of the procedure, but what a flawed procedure it is. Parents were informed by letter of a consultation in which the outcome was assumed to be academisation, and there was no sense of any alternatives being on offer. When parents rightly asked what say they had in any of this, the response was pretty much, “Yes, you can express an opinion, but this is what is going to happen.”

Originally, only organisations in favour of academisation were invited to make presentations at today’s special meeting. Parents rightly protested, and I protested, and I am pleased to say that the IEB did invite people with differing views, including local councillors and a representative from my office. I do not know the outcome of the meeting, and I suspect parents do not know yet, either, but such protests should not have been needed for other views to be put. It still is not really clear what other options are being considered.

The apparently preferred option from the outset was joining the local diocesan multi-academy trust—the Diocese of Ely multi-academy trust, or DEMAT—but there is a question as to whether that is really the best way forward for a city school. Should the school be swallowed up by a sprawling organisation that covers a huge geographical area—I choose my words carefully, and I am sure the Minister understands what I am saying—and whose effectiveness by no means convinces everyone in the local area?

Also, what about the concerns of many in the school, which has a very diverse catchment, that a move to a diocesan trust poses real dilemmas? This is a voluntary aided not a voluntary controlled school, and parents are right to raise the distinction. It is notable that some who clearly express their Christian faith raise that very point. What consideration has been given to other, more local options—or, of course, the option, which the vast majority appear to want, that the school should be as it was before the dip, and is now, by staying with the local authority? To most people, the process did not seem to offer any of those choices, only a one-way path to academisation within one multi-academy trust.

What would the Minister say to a parent who says, as parents have said to me, “I don’t want my child taught by unqualified teachers”? That is one of the freedoms available to academies. How does that parent get a say and, more importantly, how do they influence the decision? What if we discover every parent in the school shares that view? How would they get the decision changed? The answer is not obvious. Maybe the Minister can enlighten us.

The St Philip’s saga illustrates a wider problem with academies and multi-academy trusts. They take public money but are not democratically accountable to their communities. We all know that local authorities are also too often flawed, but they are by definition accountable—people can vote them out and get rid of councillors. Academies in multi-academy trusts do not have to have local representation on their boards, either of parent governors, local councillors or staff representatives. Indeed, I am told by one so-called emerging local multi-academy trust that, when it sought to include local authority representation on its board, it was told by the Department ​for Education that it could not. Will the Minister confirm whether that is the case and, if it is, why locally elected representatives are so excluded? The processes followed by these trusts are far from transparent, which inevitably leaves communities anxious.

Some multi-academy trusts in my area—in fact most of them—have boards full of impressive management and business figures, and my area is fortunate to have such people available, but the boards are singularly lacking in people on the frontline: parents, teachers and school meal supervisors. They are the people who actually know what is going on.

I mischievously suggest that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs takes a look at some of these boards. He might observe that the “blob” is more resilient than he thought. For a truly depressing session, I can heartily recommend that he browses the array of websites promoting MATs in any area, but for today’s purposes I shall limit myself to discussing Cambridge. As he looks, he will come across an array of mission statements and management gobbledegook, much beloved of corporate consultancies and full of joyless jargon, such as “pursuit of excellence”, “uniting with a common purpose” and “an outstanding education for all children is at the heart of our vision”. I know they have to do it, as that is the nature of the system—I even have sympathy with the poor people having to sit down to draft this drivel—but it is nonsense and we all know it. It may give us a chuckle when we are watching “W1A”, but this is the real world and it is not honest.

Honesty in times of really tight budgets, not Silicon Valley-esque, vomit-inducing fluff, would say something like, “Trying to make ends meet and retain teachers for more than 18 months in a high-cost area through being part of an inspiring community that works together.” Some people, of course, are trying to do just that, but we have to read between the lines of the waffle to even discern a hint of it. Nowhere on those glossy, newly branded websites do we find what we might want to know: how many unqualified teachers are being employed? What changes have been made to the terms and conditions of those employed? What changes have been made as the school moves away from the national curriculum? Surely that is what should be up there in lights—the truth.

There is a further problem that the Cambridge experience has highlighted. The complex structures of MATs and academies make local accountability through the local media extremely difficult. They are of course overseen by the regional schools commissioners, another extraordinarily opaque structure, largely invisible to parents and the wider world; they have a slightly curious role, given that this Government abolished regions. Never mind; regional schools commissioners exist, but they are technically civil servants and so do not talk to the media. Unsurprisingly, schools going through this process are also reluctant to speak to the media, so it is not much of a surprise that few people in the local community have any idea what is going on. That might suit the Government’s purposes, but it is a rotten way to run public services in a democracy and it will come unstuck. It also raises the question: what are the Government so afraid the public might find out?​

In passing—this is rather topical—let me say that Cambridge people are suddenly waking up to the fact that, through these subterranean and opaque processes, Cambridge is to be the beneficiary of a new free school promoted by none other than Mr Toby Young. I think I can say with some confidence, given what the whole world now knows about him, that Cambridge will want none of that. Perhaps the Minister can also give us some guidance on how that can be stopped.

Why does all this matter? Because the system spends and allocates public money to educate children. Why should parents and communities not be able to simply and quickly ask questions and get answers? MATs are bound to release reports periodically, but they do not give the information that parents and local community members would like to see. As I have suggested, academies work to different rules from local authority-supported schools, so can we at least work out how this is going? I ask the Minister: how many unqualified teachers are there in each MAT in my constituency? How have terms and conditions changed, and what impact has that had on pupils’ education? I hope he will be able to answer, but if he cannot, why not, and who can? And why are parents and communities being kept in the dark?

Beyond those practical questions, there is the wider question of what schools are actually for. Of course, they are primarily there to educate children and to help them fulfil their potential and flourish, equipping them with skills and knowledge for their lives. However, schools are more than that; they are also community hubs that bring people together, allowing neighbouring families to have conversations and facilitating community events, and they are spaces that people can access in times of need. We have seen recently the excellent work that schools have done in communities that have been stricken by the consequences of austerity and the underfunding of councils. A recent press article highlighted the support that a school in Southwark gave to local refugees, far beyond the call of duty.

So we need to stop seeing schools in a vacuum of exam obsession, blinkered by assessment and rote, and see them as environments for growth and local development. Proper local representation on academy boards would help provide the longer-term vision needed for seeing through the development of a school beyond a single cohort, giving communities the means to hold schools accountable to the people they serve.

Furthermore, within the fragmented, opaque system I have described, there are costs as well. The emergence of multi-academy trusts has, of course, led to competition between trusts, which want to gather more schools into their organisations. Instead of organisations working collaboratively for the public good, we have trusts eyeing each other up, eager to pick up schools that may have had a blip—and it is even better if they have some financial reserves. Perhaps it should be like in football, with a transfer window so that schools can have some periods of the year when they do not have to fight off predators.

In my constituency, there are around eight different multi-academy trusts, all vying for increased growth. Each of those trusts will, to varying extents, have people working on marketing, management structures, brand development and logos, and they will be paying audit fees. As always, it is public money that is being ​spent. All this has resulted in a fragmented system of overlapping, opaque organisations that use the public purse in ways that no one understands locally.

It is all rather reminiscent of what happened to the national health service under the previous Conservative Government. I remember Frank Dobson having to come in and clear up the mess, and famously saying to competing NHS trusts that first and foremost they were all part of the NHS and that providing public healthcare needed to come first. Academy trusts need to be redirected to the purpose of education and the public good, not self-promotion.

As I have said, local education authorities were by no means perfect everywhere. Conservative-run Cambridgeshire certainly had and has its faults, but the professional support offered to schools was an important resource and should continue to be. I do not want to see a situation in which, by a process of attrition, it is no longer viable for such services to be available to schools.

I wish to draw my remarks to a close by looking forward. Fortunately, I think it is possible to adapt existing structures and improve local accountability and representation. By bringing a few of the trusts together, rebranding them as the education service and adding the voices of councillors, parent governors and trade union representatives, we could greatly improve the accountability of these organisations to the communities that fund them and that they should serve. In turn, we would increase transparency, which would rebuild public trust and embed our schools in their communities, instead of imposing new rules without consultation.

I must say that some of us saw all this coming, which is why in last year’s general election there was a different vision on offer—one that was much closer to the points I have just outlined. The Labour manifesto promised:

“We will…oppose any attempt to force schools to become academies.”

It also promised:

“Labour will ensure that all schools are democratically accountable, including appropriate controls to see that they serve the public interest and their local communities.”

In my view, those who work in our schools, send their children to them and support schools in their local areas are best placed to give insight into the ways that they should be run—a point that has been made frequently by the shadow Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner). I can say with confidence that that view is shared by many of the people I spoke to in Cambridge in preparing for this debate.

I hope that the Minister will give some assurances to parents and staff at St Philip’s, and those at other schools in and around Cambridge who are likely to find themselves embroiled in similar discussions in coming months. There is a new Secretary of State for Education, so there is an opportunity for a new start and for working with communities, rather than against them.

Sadly, this has been a debate about structures, when in so many ways it would be much better if were talking about standards and what is needed to support, encourage and inspire teachers, who we know are the real key to higher standards. We should also be talking about how to pay those teachers sufficiently so that they can live in high-cost areas such as Cambridge, and so that they stay, rather than go, as happens all too often. I hope ​they will hear that the Minister has listened, and that the message from the Government will be, “We will work with you and help you to improve.” I hope the message is not that the only way is academisation by one route or another, because that is what it has felt like in Cambridge and, I fear, in many other places as well.