More evidence that our school system does need a 'middle tier'

Fiona Millar's picture
This lecture  by new Ofsted Chief Inspector and ex academy head Sir Michael Wilshaw is worth reading. It provides an interesting insight into the new Ofsted framework and also some revealing comments about current school reforms and the idea that autonomy will automatically lead to improvement. Reflecting on education in the 1970s and 80s he notes that:

"devolved power, unconstrained by government direction, does not necessarily raise standards. We need to remember this in the context of today’s agenda of devolving power to schools and heads. A government cannot monitor or administer 30,000 schools from the centre, but it does have a duty to put into place local checks and balances to satisfy itself that an increasingly autonomous system is held regularly to account. I’m sure policy makers are working on this as I speak. The idea of district superintendents or school commissioners responsible directly to the Secretary of State has already been floated and it is something that we should consider further."

Gradually the penny is dropping that total autonomy, without a middle tier between schools and government, won't work.

At a recent seminar organised by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Education, about academies and free schools, I floated the idea that eventually government will need to re-create a middle tier  to hold schools to account and support them. I was surprised to find that both the free school founder on the panel with me, and the representative of an academy chain in the audience, agreed on this issue.

The Labour Party should pick up this issue quickly and develop a credible system of local governance of schools that allows all schools freedom in some areas, restricted freedoms in other ( like admissions) but makes them accountable to local people ( Sir Michael seems to forget this important point) as well as to central government . The Coalition will end up in deep water once it becomes clear that the DFE can't effectively manage thousands of schools from the centre and the standard of education many children receive may suffer as a result .


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Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 08/12/2011 - 16:58

Mr Gove seems to be recognising that there needs to be a middle tier (see link below). Unfortunately, I envisage Mr Gove's idea of a middle tier would be an unaccountable organisation whose function was merely to disseminate instructions from the centre rather than a democratic body which takes notice of local opinion.

Fiona Millar's picture
Thu, 08/12/2011 - 17:19

That may be true but in reality the middle tier would need to do have a two way relationship with local schools. At the APPG seminar the free school founder raised the issue of where his school would turn if the roof fell in. He didn't know the answer to that question, was clearly concerned and also talked positively of the way his school was working with the LA. But of course the LA would not have the resources or the responsibility for his school's roof. It is a nonsense not to have one intermediate authority that has the same relationship with all schools.

Rob Davies's picture
Thu, 08/12/2011 - 21:03

It seems that the big push now is towards academy chain sponsors. Are these to be the middle tier? Is it E-ACT that wants over 200 schools under its control. That would be a decent size LA. Have you seen the press around North London PrimRies being forced into Academy chains? It seems that the speed of conversion is being stepped up so that a tipping point is met.

Of course the question has to be how these huge chains spend the money they get both as a one off and annually. Who will ask the questions? These are private companies.

Resistance is futile.

Fiona Millar's picture
Fri, 09/12/2011 - 09:15

The chains do provide a form of middle tier. However when I was researching an article for the Guardian on this subject a few months ago I found that some of the more effective chains are genuinely perplexed over whether they want to expand exponentially and risk jeopardising their close relationship with a small group of schools. I have no doubt that there will be plenty of less scrupulous groups who step into the vacuum as there is a lot of money at stake . The chains retain a proportion of each schools budget in much the same way as an LA would do so if they can get their hands on several hundreds of schools that means a multi million pound income. There seem to be few checks and balances on how they spend their money so that too is high risk for the government.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 09/12/2011 - 12:41

You should not be surprised by people agreeing with you Fiona.

No-one with either significant experience in planning education or who has studied the economics of education has seen any evidence whatsoever to suggest that a middle tier is NOT needed. This is a total flight of ludicrous fantasy of some politicians with exceptionally little experience of education or the real world in general:

The only situations in which coherent arguments could be made for a lack of local planning are in emerging systems of education which do not have obligations for complete coverage and for the protection of the most vulnerable.

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