Lesley Riddoch: David Cameron the radical strikes again

David Cameron is pushing to take all schools out of local authority control, making them in to academies. Picture: Getty
David Cameron is pushing to take all schools out of local authority control, making them in to academies. Picture: Getty
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The PM is pushing his plan despite a slim majority – what will the SNP do with a large one, asks Lesley Riddoch

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the most radical of all?

Not Willie Rennie with his extra penny on income tax for education, not Kezia Dugdale with plans to substitute a new property tax for the old council tax, not Ruth Davidson with talk of forming the Holyrood opposition – and not Nicola Sturgeon, with uncharacteristic swithering over whether and when to create a 50p top rate of tax once powers are devolved. No, strange to relate, the most radical politician in Britain is unquestionably David Cameron – though not, I’d suggest, in a good way.

Right now English society is awash with “thoroughgoing or extreme change from accepted or traditional forms”. That dictionary definition of the R-word certainly fits Tory plans to turn every school south of the Border into a self-governing, self-managing academy outside local government control by 2020, whether individual schools or communities like it or not.

Even though the language is carefully neutral – also a characteristic of Cameron’s welfare “reforms” – the switch to academies will undo 50 years of comprehensive public education at a stroke. It’s as radical a move as Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax – and as likely to prove a turning point for the Conservatives’ fortunes south of the Border.

Already the National Union of Teachers has called for a one-day strike, saying that there is no evidence to show academy status will improve schools more rapidly than remaining under local authority control. The union warns that if successful schools are taken over by academy chains, English education will be a step nearer to privatisation.

Indeed, leaders of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat groups in the Local Government Association (the English equivalent of Cosla) signed a joint letter to newspapers this weekend, opposing plans to impose academies. A leading Tory member of Oxfordshire County Council – in the Prime Minister’s constituency – warned that small village schools could close if academy chains decided they were no longer viable, and another Tory councillor in Kent said the policy would cost his local authority several million pounds without giving any improvement in performance.

The Tory Bow Group think-tank has also come out against compulsory conversion to academy status. Its chairman, Ben Harris-Quinney – who is also a Conservative councillor on East Hertfordshire Council – has urged Education Secretary Nicky Morgan to “explain why such a significant policy shift was left out of the 2015 Conservative Party manifesto.

So not only is David Cameron presiding over seismic change to the building blocks of English education, he is also doing so without a mandate, without much of a Commons majority, with opposition from Tory ranks and with a very real chance of endangering the seats of Conservative councillors in May’s local elections.

And for what? The academy stance has been variously described as brave, foolhardy and dogmatic. Maybe it’s the last throw of the dice by a Prime Minister with a limited shelf life. Likewise George Osborne’s “devolution revolution”, which offers English cities and regions powers over housing, transport, planning and policing – as long as they accept directly elected mayors. This proposal – described by one commentator as the most dramatic change to council funding since the poll tax – was at least outlined in the Tory manifesto.

But since announcing in his recent Budget that East Anglia, the West of England and Lincolnshire were joining the devolution club, the Chancellor has hit several large stumbling blocks. Last week, Tory-led Cambridgeshire County Council joined Hampshire and Cumbria (both Tory-run) in rejecting devolution deals and Labour-run Gateshead Council vetoed plans for a North-East Combined Authority.

Surely though, more local control is a good thing? Only if you trust George Osborne. “Devolution revolution” councils in England can keep £26bn in business rates, cut rates to compete with neighbours and raise local infrastructure levies. But councils will get “extra responsibilities”, core grants will be “phased out”, there may be further spending cuts and, asked if one council might try to poach businesses from another, a Treasury source said: “Yes.”

So city devolution in England could turn out to be a mechanism for delivering spending cuts by stealth and widening the income gap between rich and poor regions. According to Ian Washington, a local government specialist from Deloitte, the future of English local government looks “even more uncertain than it did [before the Budget]. The question of how councils provide the best possible services to citizens seems to have been lost in a patchwork quilt of local deals.”

Some of this is happening here. The UK government has concluded City Deals – the latest with Inverness. Meanwhile, the SNP has passed on cuts to Scottish councils and will create a fund of £100m for investment by headteachers, not councils, if the party is re-elected.

But that’s about as radical as the SNP gets.

Of course opposition to Tory “reforms” demonstrates the danger of radical change without consensus – but I’d argue that exists in Scotland on a range of issues from raising income tax to scrapping tax exemptions on vacant land.

David Cameron is imposing extreme policy change simultaneously in three key areas of English social policy – schools, councils and health – with a Commons majority of just 12. Meanwhile, with the likelihood of a far larger majority in Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon is sitting on her hands. Of course, those hands are tied by a devolution settlement giving the Scottish Government fewer borrowing powers than the average council ,and there has always been one rule for regressive Conservative revolutionaries and another for progressive Scottish radicals in the mainstream media. But in structural terms nothing much looks set to change here – unless the SNP manifesto surprises us all.

Radical Scots await its publication with interest.