Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Public sector reform is part of the answer

I am sorry that my piece about why Labour should not hand over the mantle of public service reformers to the Tories has discombobulated Luke Akehurst. I will try and explain a bit more here and respond to some of his points.

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Luke is a fine fellow, and I don’t regret for a minute encouraging my fellow Labour party members in Barrow and Furness to nominate him for the party’s national executive committee. I would urge people to vote for him in the forthcoming ballot.

But I think that we are in trouble if we adopt the attitudes he is suggesting on public services, attractive though they may be for some.

I think it is worth briefly replying because I know, as I guess he does too, that this is a view quite widely shared by Labour colleagues. There may well be many who wholeheartedly supported most of the ways in which New Labour sought to modernise our approach, yet look back with mixed feelings on our public service reform drive towards the end of Tony Blair’s years as prime minister.

Some of what Luke says has a lot of merit, I just don’t agree with the conclusions he reaches.

He is quite right that Tony Blair and several of his ministers were incredibly driven by radical and controversial public service reform and used up a lot of political capital in doing so. Less than the Iraq war, but a lot. I would question Luke’s assertion, though, that they should have spent the time on something more worthwhile like social justice, as he puts it. What contributes more to social justice than widening opportunities in education and reducing health inequality, which is what these reforms were trying to do?

Nor should we accept that late Blair era reforms are the be all and end all – that certainly wasn’t my argument. They were certainly often clumsily argued to the rest of the Labour family and public – whether or not replacing monolithic providers with choice and contestability of provision in public services was the answer, it definitely wasn’t the language to get people flocking to the polls.

But heavens, let’s not conclude it was never worth bothering with reform in the first place. I can’t believe that is actually Luke’s argument, even if he kind of says it is. And certainly let’s not use cuts in funding as a reason NOT to consider new ways of doing things – surely the opposite should be the case if we are going to be trying to preserve and improve services as much as possible when increasing resources is no longer an option.

I am glad that he thinks that Mossbourne and other academies in Hackney are now a stunning success thanks to their new head and changes in ethos (though I am curious about the argument that these improvement happened in spite, not because, of the change to academy status intended to encourage that very effect).

It is right to flag up problems with choice in education at the moment. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that choice of schools is an illusion, but it certainly isn’t good enough for too many parents making a critically important decision about their child’s future. Sure, many people won’t bother combing through league tables to reach a preference, but they will know damn well which school in the area they think is the best. And too many parents, like Luke apparently, haven’t got a realistic chance of getting their child into that school at the moment.

None of us want to accept that situation – that was the thrust of what I was saying in the original piece about how Labour should remain impatient for improvement and not fall back to the status of naysayers against Tory plans with which we may not agree but to which we have no credible alternative.

But what about the counter-argument – that people don’t want choice, they just want a good local school. That we can make these improvements within the existing system with good people, so let’s stop faffing about with things that bring us into conflict with public service workers and get on with making things better.

Well, some people do want a choice of good schools, not just one – and is that so unreasonable? But many people indeed simply want to be able to send their child to their nearest school and be happy with it.

So how to achieve that laudable aim? Let’s take Luke’s example of how he says Hackney was turned around (accepting for a moment what he says, that the success of the academy schools there had nothing to do with the fact they are academies).

He suggests the determination of councillors like him and a good chief executive made a big difference. But what if other local authorities do not have councillors or chief executives with the brilliance and drive to encourage change and effective new leadership in their schools?

Well, the obvious answer is that there is local democracy – put your trust in that. There is nothing to stop local parties standing on a ticket of education reform to whip the underperforming local education authority into shape, and residents voting accordingly. But schools are hardly ever close to being the most salient among the many possible issues at local election time in the vast majority of areas at the moment. Why is that likely to change, without trying to encourage a culture change which would be competing for space against several other problems, or some type of democratic, er, reform? And such a reform doesn’t spring to mind, though do send in ideas.

Alternatively, if you are not satisfied that local government – voting in a better set of councillors – will fix the problem, there is national government. Rely on the schools minister to send in a crack team to failing schools, change the leadership and hopefully turn the place around. That happens at the moment with Ofsted of course, and a good thing too. But could we really ramp up this top-down control to the extent that national government inspection eradicates underperformance? I find it highly unlikely.

Or we could hand more power or resources to the producers – in this case teachers and the school governing bodies themselves That could be investing in the workforce and governors to increase performance and leadership, giving them the space to innovate, as Luke suggests. Well of course, we must do that, and the more the better – we should be proud of Ed Balls’s focus on doing just that. But again, I just don’t see how that will be enough, even if it is combined with the mechanisms above.

So to the last Labour government’s structural reform in education empowering producers that gave more freedom to academies and their staff. It isn’t right to dismiss the improvements that many have achieved. But where I do have concerns that we didn’t get the balance – and the Conservatives are set to aggravate the problem – is in whether there is enough genuine control for parents in the move to academy schools.

We have cut ties with the local authority, but have we done enough to give power down to the people who rely on the school – the parents? If not, then increased power lies with the school itself. That may be fine for a successful school while it is doing well, but what about if standards start to slip?

Choice in schools and other public services isn’t intended as a difficult-to-achieve luxury desired by some people but not by others – it is a way of driving up standards in itself by handing power to the users of public services themselves, which is surely what we should be about as a party.

Accepting that people know the good school in their area that they want to go to, if they had a genuine choice of going to that school, then a) they would be happy; and b) if you got the funding system right, (again structural change – sorry) that school would get more resources and so have more incentives to go out and attract more people in. That would be a great improvement on the current regime where many schools don’t feel they have the capacity or the support to expand, or the incentive to risk going beyond what they feel is the optimal size. Except it is only optimal if you are lucky enough to be in it, if you are told your child can’t go there, it is pretty bloody sub-optimal.

That is a pretty crude summary from someone who certainly isn’t an expert in the field, and highlights problems rather than answers. It is all hugely difficult territory or we would have cracked it already.

Yet it is essential that we continue to recognise there is a problem and continue to search for ways to tackle it that go beyond more of the same with major reform off the table. And some of those changes might, gasp, be in the structure of how services are delivered and to whom they are accountable.

For starters, we should do more to examine what difference to standards and parental satisfaction is being made by the innovative model of genuine community ownership in the cooperative trust schools, and how we could encourage the spread of those cooperative principles.

And in deciding where we should go next, we should take the time to properly examine what worked and what didn’t over the last decade, what were the effects for employees, what was communicated well and what badly, and how the changes in emphasis brought by Gordon Brown fared for better or worse.

Maybe we should just run all our public services like the military, as Luke suggests in his conclusion. But let’s not forget that there is dire need of radical reform in the way the ministry of defence procures new kit to get it to the frontline when the armed forces actually need it, not years afterwards. And the forces may have to embrace substantial structural reform to remain as effective as they can in the face of big budget cuts. And, while the NHS’s agenda for change meant employees adapting to some pretty significant changes to working practices, I am not sure they were quite on the scale of the innovation that our troops constantly undergo on the frontline to stay alive.

The world isn’t going to stand still now we have fallen out of government. The Tories may be peddling unacceptable answers, but they are at least recognising there is a problem to fix with their ‘free schools’ policy.

Our opponents will get credit with some for that recognition alone, and are liable to get more if we vacate the pitch entirely and say we are not interested in any further reform.

Anyway, I am on holiday and not going to say any more on the subject for now. But I would be interested in hearing what others think. This is a debate we need to have.

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John Woodcock MP

is member of parliament for Barrow and Furness

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