Labour is at an exciting juncture in its schools policy. Most recently, the party has confronted some of the absurdities of the free schools policy and advanced its own alternative of parent-led academies. What these will look like is the next big question Tristram Hunt and his team must answer.
In collaboration with my colleagues Jamie Audsley, Jane Wills, David Watson and Clyde Chitty, I have recently published an IPPR Report investigating Citizen Schools. We argue Citizen Schools are those schools that look to develop young people as active, democratic citizens within an institution that allows them to take powerful leadership roles and contribute to the school and local community. In developing parent-led academies, Labour should pay attention to our findings.
One of the four schools featured in our study that typifies this approach is St Clere’s, a co-operative School in Thurrock. By virtue of its co-operative nature, it encourages parents, staff and students as well as members of the local community to contribute to how it runs. As a result, all stakeholders in the school see themselves as respected and valued, allowing the young people in particular to learn to be active citizens within a democratic environment.
In developing a blueprint for parent-led academies, Labour should emphasise that a PLA’s governance should be overwhelmingly local in this way. Not only should decisions about children be made primarily by those closest to them, but as we have seen there is considerable virtue in children learning to be democratic citizens within their school.
Within Citizen Schools, young people not only contribute to the running of the school but use their democratic skills to extend the school’s reach beyond the school gates and into their community. The schools we looked at were notable for showing how young people could campaign on issues of crime and antisocial behaviour, and work with local businesses and institutions to come up with practical solutions for these problems.
By embracing a democratic ethos that searches for a common good, Citizen Schools develop their young people into powerful active citizens. Not only is this intrinsically good, but if schools can play a role in solving the social problems on their doorstep then their children will learn better as a result.
This was powerfully demonstrated in our study by the actions of children at both Ladywell Prendegast School and the RSA Tipton Academy, who made practical changes to their respective communities that significantly increased their safety and hence their future prospects. It’s also likely that having a strong sense of their own agency must help young people to develop their academic self-confidence.
This raises the question of what government and policymakers can do to facilitate the growth and spread of Citizen Schools. The Chief Executive of the St Clere’s Co-operative Trust, Paul Griffiths, gave a clear and blunt answer to this question at our launch event a few weeks ago: Get out of the way. His view was that the twenty years of government initiatives in this area that he had experienced, whilst often well-intentioned and well-conceived in many respects, had too often hindered his school’s development.
This is a strong challenge for Labour and for us as Fabians. We instinctively believe in the use of the state to rectify inequality and injustice. Indeed, both local and central government surely must have a vital role to play in ensuring an equality of resources, and in taking measures to avoid a situation where PLAs become havens for the middle classes and traps for the rest.
In developing the PLA model, therefore, Labour must strike a balance between central concerns and local control. The party must place faith in people to take decisions about what is best for their children, and place faith in children to develop into positive members of society.
This leaves us with some big questions for the development of the PLA model. As we ask in our report, how can government adopt a facilitating rather than command and control approach to school ethos? How can government promote the examples of good practice we highlight, and allow schools to become sites of democratic renewal where young people become active citizens?
We have some partial answers, but a change of mindset and a focus on redistribution of power from the central to the local is what is most required to turn our schools into springboards for the democratic citizens of tomorrow.