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“The Market Doesn’t Work in Schools,” says Baroness Estelle Morris

March 28, 2019, 12:04 GMT+1
Read in 8 minutes
  • The former education secretary and Labour peer, Baroness Estelle Morris, explains why she’s trying to get more schools working together...
“The Market Doesn’t Work in Schools,” says Baroness Estelle Morris

You’re a co-chair of the Association of Education Partnerships, which aims to ‘Provide the local glue in a fragmented landscape’. In your view, what form does that fragmentation take?
In one of my other roles as chair of the Birmingham Education Partnership, I’ve visited many parts of the country, talking to teachers, and have found that lots of partnerships are being built locally. Not in response to something that government or Ofsted have said, but because teachers have seen a need for it to happen.

Those partnerships are largely trying to solve problems related to fragmentation. Over the past 20 or so years there’s been a move towards autonomy, which I think is good – the notion of giving heads more power and allowing them to run their own budgets is the right thing to do. But it’s fragmented the system, so that there now aren’t many levers left that enable schools to work together, and that’s a problem.

There’s nothing wrong with competition, but educationalists know that independence and interdependence are both equally important. There is such a thing as a local school system; it’s how communities provide education for the next generation, yet we’ve arrived at a place where we’ve seen notions of locality disappear. LEAs have been pushed out of the picture in favour of MATs, which often won’t incorporate any notions of ‘the local’.

Some schools’ MAT partners can be situated hundreds of miles away. I believe the government is now starting to recognise the error of that, and so are these teacher-led school partnerships, which are trying to restore and reinvent the local school system for themselves.

What’s the AEPA’s role in this process?
The AEPA is an organisation open to anyone to who’s formed a local partnership in order to raise educational standards in their local area. There’s no blueprint, nobody saying ‘You’ve got to do it this way’ – but there is a hunger out there among people who are keen to raise awareness of what different partnerships are doing.

To your point about there being ‘nothing wrong with competition’ – does that not naturally give rise to a system of winners and losers?
I mention competition became I don’t want people to think I support going back to the old days, when there was little rigour in education. I’m in favour of most of the changes brought in over the last 30 years; I don’t hold with this view that things were brilliant three decades ago and are now awful.

Competition is part of human nature, it’s something inevitable – but ‘the market’ isn’t, and it doesn’t work in schools. What the market depends on are organisations and entities that fail and get closed on the one hand, and those that are successful, grow and expand on the other. Governments can close schools which don’t improve within certain time frames, and ask other schools to take over from them, but communities can’t lose schools without consequences. You can’t leave children in a school while it’s fading away; you have to intervene before that failure occurs, which isn’t how markets operate.

Can you describe how some of these partnerships you’ve seen work in practice?
Some areas have put in place fairly loose partnerships, while others have needed or wanted a much tighter arrangement. The partnerships are all school-led, but I haven’t seen any that comprise schools only – most also include an LA in some shape or form, but no one’s under any obligations. It depends on whether the LA is prepared to cede some of its power. The model works best when LAs are at the table and prepared to share some of their remaining powers with the partnership’s members.

Does the AEPA see any prospect for MATs and LAs working together in new, more productive ways?
We do. The government sought to address the issue of isolated schools by encouraging them to form MATs, but isolated MATs continue to present a problem. Some AEPA members are MATs which consist of between six and 10 schools, but still feel as though they’re not part of a local school system.

I’m favour of MATs, because they’re better than having schools standing alone by themselves, but they don’t provide all the answers. There has to be something in place across a community or geographical area which holds that education is a public good. If you genuinely believe that locality doesn’t matter, and that you can have a city the size of Birmingham with around 400 schools run by hundreds of providers who never talk to each other, then you wouldn’t support the APEA. But if you believe that approach won’t work as well as having a good local school system, then I think you’ll see the APEA as a good thing.

You’ve previously spoken of the need for more pedagogical knowledge sharing throughout the system – have you been encouraged by any recent developments in this area?
One of the good things the government did was set up the Education Endowment Foundation in 2010 – it’s an organisation that’s charged with finding out what works in education, but while maintaining an arms-length relationship with government, which is important. Another organisation I’m a great supporter of is researchED. It’s teacher-led and teacher-run, and having been to a number of their Saturday morning conferences, I’ve seen how they’re attracting hundreds of people who just want to know what the evidence says about what works.

If you could enact three major changes to the English education system tomorrow, what would they be?
First, I’d redraw the line between politics and education, and concentrate more on the evidence of what actually works. Ministers didn’t used get involved in pedagogy, and there was still plenty for them to do, but that’s changed. Ministers now think it’s all right to proscribe what reading scheme teachers should use – and we did it just as much as the Tories, so this isn’t a party political point.

Secondly, there would be an acknowledgement that the local matters. I’d devolve far more of the responsibilities for monitoring and raising standards from the centre to localities. I’m not a defender of LAs at any cost, but if they were good enough, I’d happy for them to do it.

Finally, I’d like see broad and balanced curriculums being delivered in really vibrant and exciting ways. Too many schools now feel that with the messages they’re receiving, the pressures they’re under and the resources they’ve got that there’s no time for the arts, music, dance and sport, to say nothing of citizenship and other areas. I’d like to see parts of the curriculum be more valued than they are at present.

Career timeline

  • 1974 Begins an 18-year secondary and sixth form teaching career
  • 1981 Becomes Labour Group Leader on Warwick District Council
  • 1992 Voted Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley
  • 2001 Appointed Secretary of State for Education and Skills
  • 2003 Appointed Minister for the Arts at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport
  • 2005 Takes oath of allegiance as a Labour peer

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