Shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt has welcomed moves to form a combined authority for the West Midlands and says it could link well with Labour’s proposed regional schools commissioners.
The Labour shadow cabinet member first announced plans for schools commissioners in the wake of the Trojan Horse scandal in Birmingham schools – saying that a lack of oversight of the fragmented school system had created an environment for Trojan Horse activity to go on unchecked – until exposed in the anonymous letter.
Mr Hunt’s comments come after Birmingham and the Black Country councils agreed a Combined Authority deal, and will possibly be joined by Solihull and Coventry, to work closely on regional activity.
Speaking during a tour of the South and City College engineering centre in Tyseley, the Stoke-on-Trent MP said: “The school system is too fragmented. That presents particular challenges in Birmingham, because you seem to have about four school commissioners now.”
He was referring to the host of reviews of education, child protection and council governance which have sprung up in recent weeks as a result of the Trojan Horse revelations and the ongoing crisis in children’s social care.
Mr Hunt said: “We need some clarity about who’s in charge, where is the oversight and accountability to allow Birmingham schools to rebuild themselves following what has taken place.
“The Peter Clarke report showed that the speed of the academisation programme increased the risk of extremist take over, so the Government programme and schools policy was the context against which this happened.”
But he backed academies to continue, although some in the Labour Party would like to schools brought back under the local education authority banner.
“You want autonomy, but you also want oversight and accountability,” he explained.
Whereas currently thousands of academies and free schools are overseen by the Department for Education in London, the Labour manifesto pledge is for schools commissioners to carry out the role at a regional level.
“The proposed combined authority is the type of geography over which you would have a schools commissioner,” he added.
Joining him on the tour of the facility in Amington Road, where 500 students study motor car mechanics and other engineering courses, was Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna and the party’s Yardley election candidate Jess Phillips.
Mr Umunna had last month, speaking exclusively to the Birmingham Post, set out the party’s stall on the combined authority and Metro Mayors. He dismissed last week’s announcements of further devolution by Chancellor George Osborne, saying the Coalition Government has had five years to develop real devolution to the regions, including acting on Lord Heseltine’s No Stone Unturned report, and “failed to follow through and deliver”.
Mr Umunna said: “What we are proposing goes a lot further, he’s rather late to the game on Metro Mayors. We have been encouraging and want to see more combined authorities working together with the Local Enterprise Partnerships to bid for funding of up to £30 billion. That is simply unmatchable with this government.
“We’ve gone further on devolution and have a track record. We’re the party which set up the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament and Greater London Authority and set up regional development agencies which when they were abolished people said what on Earth are you doing. Even Michael Heseltine, who I have a lot of respect for, said it was a mistake to abolish the regional development agencies.”