How to make academies accountable--the Wilshaw way

Helen Flynn's picture
It seems that the new Ofsted Chief, Sir Michael Wilshaw, is waking up to the fact that the vast army of academy schools that has suddenly sprung up is largely unaccountable. In his own words he has said that by the time that Ofsted has uncovered that a school is failing, it is too late. Spurred on by an article published by the IPPR, he is now advocating Local School Commissioners.

These would be heads or maybe ex-heads, locally based with a sound knowledge of local schools, with Sir Michael recommending that they are directly employed by the Department for Education (despite the IPPR recommending that they are locally accountable to city mayors, etc).

Baffling though this may seem, Sir Michael does not see the contradiction in the following utterance he made:

"These people would be non-political, in other words they would not be like LEAs responsible to a council... they would be people who would report directly to the secretary of state"

It’s rather reminiscent of “Animal Farm”, isn’t it? Reporting to the Secretary of state is described as non-political, but reporting to a local council is political. So that should be read, I suppose, as: local politics=bad, centralized politics=good.

Despite the rhetoric of localism, there is very little to do with true localism in what the coalition has created so far in terms of school “reform”, whether it is structure or curriculum, and this latest idea about school commissioners very much follows the current government direction of travel.

In cherry-picking items from the IPPR article and exercising the usual level of tunnel vision when it comes to international comparison, both Gove and Wilshaw seem to have completely ignored international examples of local school systems, accountable to local people, which are stunningly successful in terms of school improvement. Finland always comes to mind when considering these, but Alberta, Canada, through its successful use of local school superintendents over decades has produced a truly local schools system that is highly achieving. Even Michael Gove points out its success, though cleverly never, of course, alludes to its highly locally accountable facet. Plus ca change…….as the saying goes
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Samuel Morris's picture
Thu, 16/02/2012 - 15:13

Helen I think this sounds very similar to what Sir Tim Brighouse said in his conclusion in his speech to Oxford last year, if my memory is correct.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 16/02/2012 - 15:54

Sir Tim's lecture has been previously discussed on this site (see link below). Sir Tim warned about the dangers of centralized control, interference with the curriculum, undermining professionals and how market forces can undermine equity. He described how power has been increasingly centralized since the eighties and how the present Secretary of State can now act without referring to Parliament. He pointed out that such “mantra words” as diversity, choice, autonomy and accountability are twisted in such a way as to distort discussion about education.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 16/02/2012 - 16:23

So, the Secretary of State creating school commissioners is "good", while local authorities with elected Councils are "bad".

Richard Hatcher writing on this site has pointed out the dangers of directly elected Mayors who could be given control over a wide range of public services. In an article about a candidate for the City Mayor, the Birmingham Mail wrote: "Further proposals would see the elected mayor take on greater responsibility for the city wide work of the Department for Work and Pensions, Network Rail, Highways Agency, Jobcentre Plus and various training and skills agencies. Mr Simon [the candidate] says the mayor should have direct power over schools, including the ability to remove a head teacher and management, close a failing school and even set a Birmingham curriculum."

This is a worrying development - one person having control over such a wide range of services and being able to make unilateral decisions about school leadership and subjects to be taught. This is not localism - unless localism means putting all power into the hands of one person.

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