Is Labour’s attack on academy financial freedoms emblematic of a wider war on school autonomy?

Tristram Hunt has been waging a steady war of words against school autonomy since his appointment as Shadow Education Secretary in October 2013. It started slowly. He first clarified Labour’s position on free schools, saying that they would not permit any more free schools to open, although they are not seeking to close those currently operational.

Soon Mr Hunt’s major policy became that he would end the policy of schools being able to hire unqualified teachers, criticising academies in particular for doing so. Next he was insisting that all schools should provide a “broad and balanced curriculum”, to restrict academies and free schools ability to decide what they teach. This week it became clear that academy financial freedoms are well and truly in the firing line.

In The Guardian last weekend, Mr Hunt indicated that a Labour Government would clamp down on the practices of Academy Trusts holding large budget surpluses, to ensure that schools do not hold back income from spending on education provision. Mr Hunt did not indicate the mechanism through which a Labour Government would do this, although one of his team told The Guardian that they would not claw back the savings schools had made and instead offer academies a “transition period” to adjust their balance sheets. This suggests that a Labour Government may introduce a cap on the budget surplus that a school may hold, to incentivise spending.

Whether or not you agree that schools should be holding large budgetary surpluses that could be otherwise be spent on teachers and educational resources (the Guardian suggests some schools are holding over a million pounds in cash), there is an inconsistency in Mr Hunt’s argument. When highlighting this article on Twitter, he said that Labour would protect education spending to ensure that “every pound is well spent”. Academies could argue that instructing schools to spend is not necessarily conducive to strategic spending, as part of a greater case to protect their autonomy.

The issue of schools holding budget surpluses has been linked to an unanticipated excess of income from the pupil premium, with schools accused of banking the funding rather than spending it on educational resources. However, teaching staff costs are set to rise due to increasing employer pension contributions and pay awards from September 2015, and both Labour’s and the Conservative’s education spending plans are estimated to lead to an approximately 10% cut in what schools receive per pupil. So it may also be that schools are retaining resources for an anticipated rainy day ahead.

Schools have been given the power to make this choice for themselves, but Hunt’s words suggest that a Labour Government would restrict such choices. Labour’s subdued but steadily building case against school autonomy fits into the party’s broader rhetoric of fairness that it is trying to convey. It’s general message under Ed Miliband has long been that the Government’s role is to level the playing field to restrict disadvantage, whether referring to businesses, welfare benefits, health provision or schools.

The case against this by the adherents of school autonomy is that our education system has long been held down in chains by the Government – chains built out of the argument that all schools should be subject to the same constraints, whether on teachers’ pay, curriculum or admissions policy. Supporters of school autonomy say that instead these shackles should be loosened (not broken) to allow schools to thrive.

Education experts have long argued that school autonomy is an essential component of a good education system, as maintained by the OECD. The premise is that schools should have some and not complete autonomy, which is why academies ability to regulate teachers’ pay is limited by their governors, union action and resource limitations, while their curriculum freedoms must align with school accountability mechanisms (namely league tables), and their power to vary admissions policy is virtually non-existent.

However the problem is that when the chains are loosened, while many schools may flourish some may transgress. And it is the transgression that grab the most attention. Ahead of a General Election, it is somewhat inevitable that at least one party will look to make political capital by threatening to tighten the chains in order to stops the misdemeanors. And in this case, the Liberal Democrats are also making the same complaints.

How far a Labour-led Government would go to restrict academy freedom is questionable, as there is a sense they a wary of pulling in the reigns of a seemingly successful programme – hence the arguments against the policy being fairly quiet thus far.

School financial freedom may be an easy target, and this latest announcement it is a sign that academies should not take their freedom for granted. As Whitehouse’s paper on The Year Ahead for Academy Schools argues, academies will need to work with the next Government to ensure they operate in an environment that allows them to bloom.