One of the first things I did after my colleagues elected me Leader of the Council in 2013 was to try to sum up the values that would underpin my approach to running it. Two words came to mind: choice and ambition.
One of the main areas where I wanted to continue to raise the levels of ambition and choice was in access to a good education. We know both from our experiences in Britain as well as from across the world that good schools can raise people’s expectations and abilities. That is why two of the Council’s recently adopted pledges relate to schools, one to provide new places, and the other to raise attainment among 16 to 19 year olds.
Not long ago, the Council would have controlled all the financial levers and policies to make this happen. Under a law dating back to the 1940s, the Council would have been able to exert direct authority over every school. Some may see this as local democratic control; others as the suffocation of innovation and the denial of choice or flexibility. After all, if politicians get it wrong, they get it wrong for every school in the whole borough. This we know to our cost, as the government had to relieve Swindon temporarily of its role as an education authority back in 2002. Indeed, it was the poor state of local schools that motivated me to get involved in local government.
I believe that the system we have now allows Swindon’s children and parents the best choices. Schools and colleges can no longer treat pupils as a captive market; they have to compete to attract pupils, which means they have to offer high quality educational opportunities. Parents and pupils are playing their part too by seeking out the best schools. That is why alongside our existing schools and colleges, I am delighted that Swindon has a University Technical College. This innovative vocational college received cross-party support within the Council.
In addition, we have a local school that works in partnership with one of the top public schools in the country that aims to offer a grammar stream. This is fantastic news. It means that children can have access to a different kind of high quality education without leaving the borough. If it is successful, who knows how many other schools might seek similar partnerships.
It is clear to me that only by allowing choice, innovation, and freedom from partisan control to parents and schools that we can best achieve excellence, higher attainment, and assist pupils to realise their ambitions.