Gordon Brown's announcement today that the Government is accrediting the best academy providers, plus some universities and excellent secondary schools as schools providers, with parents having the power to demand change, is a significant step forward in Labour's schools policy. Until now, the party had appeared far too defensive about structural reform in the face of Michael Gove's Swedish free schools policies, and had been unprepared to take sufficient credit for Labour's academies, allowing the Tories to adopt them as their own.
The new policy will allow parents to demand a new school provider - choosing from those like the Harris Federation that are showing such success in academies, or from excellent schools like Outwood Grange - if their own school is failing. The local authority will be obliged to ballot parents on the plan but they can't ignore parents' wishes. The policy will apply as much to primary as secondary schools. Schools already have the right to opt for foundation or trust status, something a new provider is sure to demand.
The policy is certainly a less costly route to diversity in these straitened times. But there are some potential pitfalls. The first is that it doesn't extend the academies programme and freedoms as much as it should. Despite No 10's best efforts, there is still a blind spot about academy status in DCSF. All the schools that become part of the academy chains should be able to become academies, funded directly from Whitehall and fully independent of the local authority. Second, the government has missed an opportunity to reverse its silly opposition to primary academies: a chain of primary schools could be the ideal way to develop this approach. There are also important issues around how chains are inspected and held accountable, as Robert Hill argues in a new think piece for the National College.
Nevertheless, by moving onto a debate about the right structures needed to raise standards, Gordon Brown has finally put his stamp on an education policy that has been allowed to drift for too long with the lack of focus that came from trying to mesh schools and family policy in a single department. These new 'brands' of school could extend Tony Blair's academies' strengths in a fruitful direction. By combining new powers for parents, structural reform and a strong drive for minimum standards through the National Challenge, Labour is offering a serious alternative to the Tories' policies at a time when they are facing increasing questions about affordability and impact. Labour's manifesto should give this new policy the additional radical edge it deserves.
A version of this posting appears on the Public Finance blog.