Alan Parker has worked on education policy for central and local government as well as in the private and voluntary sectors. In this short version of a longer, fully evidenced and referenced paper, Alan sets out his ideas for structural reforms necessary to replace the current complex, fragmented and opaque education system.   Alan credits many others (including NVEG members) who have directly or indirectly contributed to these ideas but acknowledges that responsibility rests with himself as the author.

The full version of Alan’s paper in PDF format can be found on this website here


The Labour Party aspires to improve education and has promoting partnerships as a vehicle for addressing the fragmentation that exacerbates the “class ceilings” identified by Keir Starmer in his July 2023 speech.  I argue that, whilst the emergence of voluntary partnerships is evidence of current structural flaws, they cannot offer a satisfactory long-term solution.  Structural de-fragmentation’ would yield multiple, quick and effective policy gains.

The benefits of change

The system is complex, fragmented and opaque.  Complexity is expensive and there are hidden costs that reduce effectiveness across the system. Unfairness in funding; different degrees of institutional autonomy and regulations applying to different types of school are corrosive.  There are inequalities in access, quality and resources for parents and children.  Different, confusing and complex governance structures lead to a lack of transparency and uneven routes to accountability in different parts of the system.  There are inequitable admissions arrangements and ineffective mechanisms for managing the supply of school places.  A minority of schools, and those who sponsor them, benefit from these inequalities enjoying favourable funding and levels of control that enable them to manipulate their intake to give the appearance of being better than they are. Lobbyists representing this minority are amongst those arguing against change.  The majority of stakeholders have much to gain.

Almost all Labour’s education policy agenda would be advanced by suitable structural reform. Many pledges would be realised automatically.  As well as being quicker and simpler than separate policies designed to work around the status quo, structural equality avoids the perception, and reality, of unequal treatment, as well as the anomalies and unlooked-for consequences that are a major feature of a fragmented environment. Most of all it would save money and therefore meet Labour’s self-imposed fiscal responsibility test.

For these reasons there is a strong case for making structural reform an early priority.  There is little to gain from delay – except for those unfairly benefiting from the status quo.

Specific policy effects

Resources.   Complexity is wastefully expensive. Individual calculations may be contestable, but the wastefulness of duplication is undeniable, and the perception and reality of unfairness obstructs collaboration. Streamlining capital and revenue funding systems towards transparent, consistent, coherent and efficient mechanisms would place all schools on a level playing field; and reduced ‘system overheads’ means more front-line spending.

Meeting the needs of Vulnerable pupils is a high cost and difficult area of policy but there is one important truism.  Maximising the proportion of needs that can be met in mainstream settings is more economical in resources and delivers social benefits for both the individual, and the education of the other children within their local community.  The ‘level playing field’ created by a coherent and consistent structural settlement could be a major factor in establishing the necessary buy-in from every school.

Teachers.  The crisis in teacher recruitment and retention has more to it than remuneration.  A better inspection regime would help, but anomalous pay and conditions (including different legal employers) across the fractured school system both adds to professional grievances and makes them more difficult to address.  Consistent structural relationships between government, schools and employees could support recruiting and retention.

Curriculum.  As with other areas, the national curriculum applies differently because of the structural differences between schools.  Three of Sir Keir’s five ‘barriers’ were curriculum related, and all would be easier to address within a coherent and consistent system.

School Organisation and Admissions.   The connection between how school places are created, offered and allocated, and the overall equity and effectiveness of the system is self-evident.  From 2010, in line with his ‘marketisation’ strategy, Michael Gove dismantled much of the beneficial innovations of the 1997-2010 Labour administrations.  This legacy of fragmentation, unreformed, will continue to hamper any attempt to re-establish equity.  Necessary further systemic reforms to recover lost ground and go forward will be easier and more effective within a coherent unified structure.

Early years provision.  Whilst much of this provision is private or voluntary, the public primary school estate and human resource still make an important contribution.  A unified and coherent approach to school structures will facilitate any necessary encouragement/requirements for that sector to support expanded early years provision.

Inspection.  In a unified and collaborative system meeting whole community needs, academy trusts need not be singled out for separately targeted inspections as their role would fit into the framework that applies to all schools.

How to plan for change

A reform strategy should be planned:

  • to create a structure that:
    • is coherent, settled, and stable.
    • is equitable, efficient, and effective.
    • promotes cooperation and collaboration.
    • avoids perverse incentives e.g., unfair admissions & covert exclusions.
    • has a unified funding system that fairly and efficiently channels the maximum resource to the front line.
    • facilitates an effective but constructive accountability system.
  • adopting an implementation strategy that:
    • minimizes the need for untried new legislation by consolidating the system around proven structures.
    • maximises stakeholder support by stipulating that no schools need to be closed or change ‘branding’; and, providing a continuing role for all current participants – including academy trusts/trustees.
    • can be achieved quickly on taking office to secure savings, and ‘no-cost’ improvements, whilst resources for other projects are constrained.

The root of the problem

Both the 1990s ‘Grant-Maintained’ experiment and ‘Academisation’ since 2010 were defined against a critique of an allegedly over-regulated status quo.  Whether or not this was ever true, the policy response was flawed; namely, leaving the pre-existing regulation in place whilst allowing/forcing selected institutions to ‘opt out’ of it.  But a proper response to over-complex regulation is simplification; not inventing elaborate mechanisms to allow some institutions to circumvent it.  Furthermore, the alleged ‘opting out’ is really ‘opting in’ to central control via a contract with the Secretary of State. Academy funding agreements selectively re-impose much of the regulation by other means but with less transparency and reduced local accountability.  Again, the antidote to excessive micro-management by government is real devolution of power through the system.  But the opposite has been brought about by the changes since 2010, which have both sucked-up power from schools into MATs and left recent Secretaries of State with even greater powers of direct intervention than their predecessors. Those powers are used to ‘re-broker’ unsatisfactory academy schools – a process that is ‘done-to’ rather than ‘done-with’ local communities.  It is this approach, above all, that has led to the present atmosphere of permanent revolution and an omnishambles urgently in need of repair.

Routes to a common structure

Turning all schools into academies is the current preferred end result; but this would create a legal anomaly.  Although regulations legally “apply” only to the maintained sector, they would still have to be retained because academies were originally conceptualised as an adjunct to a larger public sector which they are broadly required to mimic. Thus, a body of redundant education regulation that no longer applied directly to any real institution would have to be continually updated as a template for academy contractual compliance.  Because of that technical difficulty, and the recent failed attempt to move to ‘full academisation’, the public education service would be better rationalised as being delivered by accountable ‘public bodies.’  In the present climate of widespread public dissatisfaction with privatised utilities that should hardly be a controversial statement.

However, although ‘full academisation’ as an idea seems to have run out of political steam, I am not suggesting that academy schools themselves, or the trusts that control them, need to be swept away or replaced wholesale by some new model.  This is both because that could create as many problems as it solves and because individuals and institutions within that sector have made contributions that should be retained.  That leaves a strategy of ‘rationalisation’; bringing all institutions within a common framework, ironing out anomalies, inconsistencies, and wasteful duplication; whilst supporting and developing the best of what exists.

A technical readjustment so that all schools enjoy the same formal legal status, with the minority that are currently ‘private’ institutions becoming ‘public bodies’ could be enacted without undue cost or difficulty.  Or indeed, since the majority were never ‘privatised’ anyway, without the need for a debate about “re-nationalisation.” In fact, as funding agreements are held by the national Secretary of State it would more properly be characterised as “re-localisation.” Our diverse and fragmented system should be brought together within a framework which consolidates the best features of different current models.  Certain structural features occur in both academies and some maintained schools.  If these are deemed beneficial, they should apply to all schools via a common unified structure.

Doing this through legislation would necessarily ‘de-privatise’ the academy sector; but, from the point of view of parents, all schools would remain the same; as would the roles of the people running them.  The relationship between academy trusts and central government would change from a series of individual contracts to a set of regulations that apply to them all.  Such stability could be welcomed by academy trusts who currently express frustration at ministerial tinkering via the Academy Trusts Handbook. It could also provide an opportunity to reduce diversity within the maintained sector.  Apart from streamlining key systems (such as revenue and capital funding streams) there need be no, or minimal, change to others such as land tenure which would be costly and complex if full academisation was pursued.  Importantly the position of different stakeholders – churches, academy trusts and local authorities – should be adjusted to maximise, and universalise, the benefit of their contributions.  A rigorous review of current structures (both regulated and equivalent contract-defined requirements) applying to the various categories of institution would be needed to inform choices about a future unified system.

What a simpler structure could look like

A new settlement would not be identical for any existing category of institution, but the degree of change would be imperceptibly for some and small for most.  In some cases, there would be an increase in relative autonomy, additional support and resources.  Inevitably there would be some reduction in ‘academy freedoms’ which would impact most on those academy trusts which use them to secure institutional advantages relative to the rest of the system – although it is notable that many do not. Those with such vested interests would be likely to resist change; but it would be worth taking them on to secure the essential fairness and wider benefits in an improved structure.

Individual contracts between central government and academy schools would be replaced by regulations.  This was done successfully in 1998 when the former Grant Maintained schools were redesignated as Foundation Schools – a new category within the maintained sector. Although each academy funding agreement is technically separate, their provisions are broadly similar. More recent ones mandate compliance with the Academy Trusts Handbook – thereby allowing the Secretary of State to alter detailed requirements for the whole sector at will, without renegotiating multiple contracts.  The law and regulations that define the maintained sector allow for different kinds of school and governance arrangements within the overall framework.  These ‘maintained sector templates’ share a lot of the characteristics of the various configurations of Single- and multi-academy trusts.  Except that there is no equivalent to the ‘academies handbook’ so the Secretary of State does not have the same ‘power to tinker.’

Voluntary Aided (VA) School status was created in the mid-20th century as part of post-war renewal, defining structures and injecting public money to create a universal system accessible to all.  It recognised that previously free, or affordable, education was largely provided by charitable and voluntary agencies; and that, their schools needed to be incorporated rather than taken over or abolished.  In return for public money, they joined the new system, giving up a degree of independence but retaining some privileges and responsibilities.

Building a coherent system in 2025 would similarly need to re-integrate a complex quasi-independent collection of schools into the whole.  Although not exact, the parallels are close and, if anything, the task of integration would be easier than it was in 1944.  There need be no change in land tenure; and any increased restrictions on the use and disposal of real estate that might follow from bringing the academy sector back within a legally regulated framework is justified by the fact that those assets were mostly provided by the public in the first place.  The academy sector (except where trusts have access to additional resources for ‘extras’) is wholly funded by the taxpayer.   A unified finance system would change the mechanism, but not the source, of funding; and whilst the marginal benefits available to secretive private institutions may be to the financial disadvantage of some trusts (or those who control them) this was never supposed to be the case; and indeed, is not on the agenda for the vast majority of those involved who have entirely altruistic motives.

Potentially the most complex question is the translation of academy trusts into bodies with a continuing relationship with, what would become, ‘public body’ academies. Their current structures are defined under both charity and company law and are not necessary exactly similar to each other.  The same is true within the maintained sector, in that the ‘foundations’ associated with both Foundation Schools and VA Schools are often not technically identical, and don’t have an exactly similar range of functions as Academy Trusts or each other.    But these relationships are not set in stone, in either case, and indeed have changed in the past.  For the most part, following sensible rationalisation, there would be little change, or migration to a relatively more ‘autonomous’ status.  The biggest potential change would be for Community schools which have no external body involved in their governance other than the LA.  There is much to be said for such a ‘review, rationalise and reform’ exercise across the board. If it was considered that (all or some of) the extra powers currently exercised by academy trusts are beneficial, it would be possible to provide for that.  However, the important point is that any such change would be transparent and apply across the board.

A new framework should achieve greater clarity and consistency over the role of all entities involved in school governance.   There would be three tiers of statutory bodies: Central government; a ‘middle tier’ – currently Local Authorities; and a governing body for each individual school.  Foundations/trusts (or whatever new term might be adopted to identify them), being charities would avoid the anomalous position of being non-statutory bodies attempting to deliver statutory functions and be freed to perform their key support role according to a clearly defined range of functions.  As now, these could include services such as school improvement work, the appointment of governors, holding land and buildings in trust for the public good and channelling voluntary support to the front line.

Defining the exact characteristics of that framework, and its on-going management, would remain a function of Parliament and the Secretary of State.  However, once coherence was achieved, effecting any sort of change, or implementing new policy would be made considerably simpler.

Securing support

The Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches are very important players in public education.  VA status was invented mainly for them and met their needs in the 20th century.  Although many former maintained church schools have converted to academy status this has largely been arranged in such a way that the parent churches retain an acceptable level of control over their schools.  Consolidation around structures equivalent to that of church VA or academy schools is unlikely to be problematic– provided the position of the parent church is no less favourable than now.

Local authorities would be likely to accept the apparent ‘loss of control’ in exchange for the advantages of reform.  Since power was devolved to Heads and Governors in the 1980s LAs have neither had, nor wished to exercise, day to day control at school level.  Nevertheless, they have been constantly blamed for system shortcomings that new initiatives were intended to address.  They could be freed from that stigma and be facilitated to exercise the powers and responsibilities necessary to fulfil appropriate functions in respect of all schools in their area.

Similarly, MATs will fit into the new structure with their current role and legal status largely unchanged. The vast majority would continue to operate exactly as they do now.  Resistance may be expected from the small, privileged, minority who currently take advantage of systemic inequalities, with vocal support from their supporters.  But they should not be allowed to drown out the wider community benefits flowing to the majority.


Inevitably legislative activity and practical planning would be required including repeal of redundant measures and consolidation or amendment to some of what is to be retained.  However, importantly, the much greater complexity of inventing something completely new and transitioning from what exists now, would be avoided.  This paper does not attempt to go into detail.  Whilst none need be individually problematic, the list of complexities to be removed or tidied-up will be quite long.  In any event that detailed work is a proper task for DfE officials and parliamentary counsel once a government has decided to act and, importantly, consulted extensively on its plans.  However, the top-line political decision to simplify the currently over-complex and dysfunctional structural landscape need not be difficult or controversial.

Alan Parker

April 2024.