Stephen Twigg sees a role for Local Authorities ... but is it enough?

Henry Stewart's picture
Tonight Stephen Twigg, Labour Education spokesperson, gave the annual Caroline Benn memorial lecture at the House of Commons (full speech here). He restated his commitment to comprehensive schools and to a "one nation education system".

I came keen to know his plans for the new secondary school terrain. With any future Labour government inheriting a mixture of maintained schools,  independent academies, chains and free schools, how would schools be accountable? What role did he see for local authorities?

What Role for Local Government?

Stephen explained that he had had a group looking at the issue and he did see a "very important role" for local government in education. Specifically he saw three roles:

1) A voice for the local community
2) Planning and commissioning of new school places
3) Provider of some schools, especially primary schools

It is good to know that he does see a role for democratically elected local authorities. And the planning role is a huge step forward from the current situation where free schools seem to be being set up regardless of local need. But is it enough? There is no role here for the democratically elected authority to hold the schools to account and Stephen also stated that he saw no problem with a range of different providers running our schools.

As a Chair of Governors of a maintained Hackney comprehensive I know the local authority has a good knowledge of our school. When, several years ago, the school was seen as not doing well enough (despite having a fine Ofsted rating and results well above any government floor) the LEA intervened with a mixture of challenge and support. We know we are accountable to the community and that we will be held to account by the local authority.

Who will provide the external challenge and support?

In the world of academies and free schools, some will do well and some will not. But who will they accountable to? Technically they are of course accountable to the DfE but nobody there will know the schools as well as the local authority. There is no evidence or expectation of the early-intervention challenge and support that we have in an active and successful local education authority like Hackney.

There is an argument that all schools should have the autonomy enjoyed by academies. And, pressed by Chair Melissa Benn, Stephen Twigg agreed that "If a freedom is worth having, then all schools should have it. if a freedom is not worth having, then no school should have it."

But in this world of freedom for schools, who holds them to account? Stephen Twigg is comfortable with the mixture of school structures. But there is a simple step to bring co-ordination and effectiveness to the education system, and that is to make all schools - whatever their structures - accountable to the local authority. As Alan Wood, ex-Chief Executive of Hackney's Learning Trust, says "They may not be our schools but they are our kids".

Stephen, will you take the role for local authorities that step further?
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Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 14/11/2012 - 11:39

Henry - you are correct in pointing out that all schools in an area should be accountable to the local authority which should be responsible for the quality of education provided to all local children. LAs can respond more quickly when things go wrong in a school than central government can. I'm not just thinking of under-performance but those crises that sometimes hit schools - catastrophes like a major fire or incidents such as a teacher being seriously injured in an accident. Would the DfE be able to send in a team of counsellors to deal with traumatised pupils following, say, the attack on a fellow pupil at the school gate which resulted in death? Would the DfE even be aware that a major catastrophe had happened?

A local authority would - LAs have a commitment to their schools which far surpasses anything remote DfE officials can offer.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 14/11/2012 - 11:51

I'm disappointed that Stephen Twigg is happy with schools being run by a range of providers. Applying market forces to public services is fraught with dangers as recent media reports have found. The National Audit Office has also warned that there are risks as well as opportunities in delivering public services through markets. (see faqs above).

Twigg's relaxed attitude towards a range of providers risks schools being run with with a view to profit. The Swedish education secretary told the BBC that Sweden had just begun an enquiry into the motivation of profit-making education providers. He cited a conflict of interest between the needs of the pupils and the needs of shareholders.

Allowing more outsourcing was one of Labour's flawed policies. And the BBC has found that many LAs are not renewing contracts and bringing services back in-house.

Guest's picture
Wed, 14/11/2012 - 15:25


You know the history of the the Hackney Local Authority better than most.
Correct me if I am wrong but it was a private company called the Learning Trust that was responsible for Hackney schools until very recently. could you please correct me if I am wrong about this but your post praises the Hackney Local Authority - why?

Henry Stewart's picture
Wed, 14/11/2012 - 16:55

Good question. Read it carefully and I praise the LEA (Local Education Authority). At least that was the intention. :)

In 2002 Hackney Council was widely regarded as failing (it is very different now, transformed) and the education authority was out-sourced to a new not-for-profit called The Learning Trust, set up for the sole purpose of playing the role of the Local Education Authority, accountable to the Council. Since September the Learning Trust has been re-integrated into the Council.

For me this is a model to follow. Those who oppose the local council playing the middle tier role sometimes argue that some don't play the role well and don't perform the support and challenge I outline here.

What makes sense to me is to have the LEA play that role, to intervene if they are not doing it well and, yes, if necessary set up a Learning Trust-like body to play the role in those (probably rare) cases where the Council isn't up to it. Crucially the Trust has always been within the local democratic structure and accountable to the Council.

Fiona Millar's picture
Thu, 15/11/2012 - 13:05

If anyone wants to know more about the Hackney model, here is a piece I wrote in the Guardianthat links to a recent book about the Learning Trust and its history.

Tony Chuan's picture
Wed, 14/11/2012 - 17:15

Q: 'Stephen Twigg sees a role for Local Authorities … but is it enough?'

A: Yes.

Q: 'Stephen, will you take the role for local authorities that step further?'

A: No

With turnout in local elections of only 31.1%, there is a big question mark over whether an increasingly, and desirably, mobile population is really grounded in counties and towns in the way previous generations would have been.

An increasingly independent and diverse local state educational sector simply reflects the Zeitgeist.

Henry Stewart's picture
Thu, 15/11/2012 - 17:25

Interesting point, Tony. But I'm not sure its accurate, despite the low turnout in many elections. My questions:

Where will parents go when they are dis-satisfied with local schools? Normally to their local council or local councillor. Would any really contact the DfE?

Who knows the local schools best - so as to provide the support and challenge they need - the local education authority or the distant DfE?

No national body can effectively provide what is needed for 25,000 schools. There is a clear need for a middle tier and the organisations that exist and are best placed to play that role are local authorities.

Fiona Millar's picture
Thu, 15/11/2012 - 18:19

When I phone the DFE yesterday to ask some more questions about the KS4 I was received with a recorded message informing me that if my query was a local one, I should contact my local authority. This is when things get problematic if the LA isn't responsible for any of its schools. Where are the parents supposed to go then?

Tony Chuan's picture
Sat, 17/11/2012 - 19:23

'Disintermediation is a process in which a middle player poised between service or product providers and their consumers is weakened or removed from the value chain. Disintermediation is driven by the fact that middle players consume resources and in removing them from the chain, these resources are recovered to enable either lower cost for the consumer, better value from the provider, or both. Disintermediation can be total, in which case a middle player is removed entirely. It can also be partial, in which case an intermediary is carved up and the different ways in which they formerly added value are segmented, replaced, or done away with as circumstances permit. Understanding the process of disintermediation is critical to understanding the ways in which Education 2.0 will evolve.'

Tony Chuan's picture
Sat, 17/11/2012 - 19:53

Thank you for your time. I know you are really busy.

If a parent has a problem with their child's state school, right now the first port of call is the school itself, then the local council and then the department of education.

Meanwhile, in the rest of the solar system:

'Disintermediation is a process in which a middle player poised between service or product providers and their consumers is weakened or removed from the value chain.

Disintermediation is driven by the fact that middle players consume resources and in removing them from the chain, these resources are recovered to enable either lower cost for the consumer, better value from the provider, or both.

Disintermediation can be total, in which case a middle player is removed entirely. It can also be partial, in which case an intermediary is carved up and the different ways in which they formerly added value are segmented, replaced, or done away with as circumstances permit.'

(This is a quote from an article by Rob Tucker on an emerging technologies website - O'Reilly Radar)

For example, travel agents:

'Disintermediation of travel agencies occurred in two distinct phases: an initial phase in which technology enabled travel agents to do their job better and a “terminal” phase in which these same agencies were disintermediated.

Phase one of the process began with the shift to computerized reservation systems within the service providers – American Airlines and their Sabre system, for example. This was initially greeted by travel agents as a positive development. Sabre made their jobs easier – they could help more clients faster and with more comprehensive service.

As the Web matured, though, services like Expedia, Travelocity, Hotwire and, allowed the end user – the consumer – to make travel arrangements directly and with far greater transparency regarding price and available services than the travel agents had been able to provide. First the savviest of the travelers, the “road warriors” who flew hundreds of thousands of miles a year, but soon “mom and pops,” came to use the electronic services instead of their local travel agent. In a single decade, the number of US travel agents declined by 45%.'

He goes on to say:

'There will always be physical schools – students need to go somewhere during the day to enable the engine of modern economic progress: two parents working. But these schools will evolve into things that look more like civic centers – hubs for community involvement and rich relationship-building, augmented by more spontaneous micro-communities that span the globe, forming and bursting like soap bubbles. None of these things are certain. What is certain is that disintermediation rarely has a delicate touch. It will change the way we teach and change the way we learn in the decade and decades ahead.'

So, in answer to your point, there is no reason why, in the digital era, a national body cannot provide what is needed for 25,000 schools; of course it can, in terms of information processing and response times.

But the best agency is, of course, the school itself and its own hierarchy.

Where, occasionally, a relationship between school and parent breaks down irretrievably, what then?

That is where variety and diversity, even a low key competitive environment, of local schools kicks in.

Why should local people have to put up with Hobson's choice?

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 18/11/2012 - 08:10

Tony - Oh, Brave New World where 20,000+ school "hubs" have curriculum and summative assessment delivered centrally by a government department department or purchased from a provider.

Perhaps you're right - micro schools will foam and burst like "soap bubbles" with parents and pupils deciding what they want to learn. But - using the web to teach presupposes (a) the child can read, (b) the child is disciplined enough to avoid distraction and (c) is motivated. "Virtual" schools are already being tried out in the states (for-proft providers are salivating at the thought) but the quality of the courses needs to be stringently moderated, geared to local needs and the needs of the student.

This can't be decided centrally. And gearing education to internet delivery risks undermining social skills which are essential to human life.

"Variety and diversity" may work in a city but in small towns and rural areas there is little or none. That's why a good local school for every child is essential.

"Low key competitive environment" - the evidence linking market forces and educational outcomes is fragmentary and inconclusive. See faqs above.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 18/11/2012 - 08:33

Tony - you have misunderstood the complaints procedure although I don't blame you for misunderstanding because Government advice says:

"If your child has a problem at a state school that you can’t resolve with them, you can make a complaint to your local council."

But this procedure is only for schools maintained by local authorities. Further down your linked page is:

"Academies and Free Schools
Complain to the Department for Education."

Clicking on the words "Department for Education" leads to a School Complaints Form headed by further advice to read the Guidance first. Clicking on Guidance takes the reader to:

"Guidance on making a complaint about a school" (8 pages long).

However, there's a link in the sidebar to the "EFA Academies Complaints Proceudre" (7 pages long) which makes it clear that the Education Funding Agency (EFA) will not overturn decisions made by an academy but will only investigate to ensure the Academy followed its own complaints procedure.

The EFA is part of the Department for Education. The DfE is proposing to slash staff. It's unclear how the DfE expects to handle an increased number of complaints as more schools become academies.

This is another reason for a middle tier between schools and central government.

Tony Chuan's picture
Sun, 18/11/2012 - 16:12

'E learning' and schools can and do coexist, are complementary, as my reference above indicates..

But it is the very idea of a 'middle tier' that seems so alien in today's ever shrinking world.

To continue the analogy above, one would not expect a Local Authority to get involved in with local travel agencies.

Why should they be involved in education?

After all the only reason that state education exists is as a consequence of central government legislation, mandated by the electorate.

Local government has never been so mandated and, with turnout in local elections of around 30%, local government mandate for anything at all is, at best, uncertain.

Regarding competition among local schools, recent research indicates what, intuitively, one might expect:

It is thus not surprising that it took about ten years before competition effects kicked in.’

This, concludes Sahlgren, ‘clearly demonstrates that it takes time before competitive incentives have an impact – which has implications for how we evaluate other school choice programmes. Moreover, it indicates that competition is the key mechanism behind producing better outcomes, not the fact that some schools are better than others. It also shows that for-profit schools are just as good as non-profit schools when it comes to raising the overall attainment levels in a voucher system.’

Independent Schools and Long-Run Educational Outcomes: Evidence from Sweden’s Large Scale ; Voucher Reform IZA DP No. 6683

June 2012; Anders Böhlmark Mikael Lindahl

Tony Chuan's picture
Sun, 18/11/2012 - 16:39

Disintermediation is enabled by the revolution in information.

Massive advances in digital processing power lends wings to administration, logistics and all the traditional 'back office' tasks, accountancy, human resources and so on.

Organisational hierarchies become simpler, head offices much smaller with power delegated down to where it is most informed, at the 'coal face'.

What this means for state education is the empowerment of teachers, particularly head teachers, and self supporting formal and informal cooperation between geographically adjacent schools.

Benevolent despotism from the centre, bypassing a redundant middle tier, keeps schools honest and accountable through a system of local commissioners reporting directly to the electorally mandated seat of power in Whitehall.

Local authorities are themselves advantaged by disintermediation, enabled thereby to concentrate on what they do best, ensuring that the most vulnerable in the local community are embraced by that community and their needs provided for.

Regarding complaints, it goes without saying that the school hierarchy itself is the best source of remedial action.

If relations between the school hierarchy and the complaining parent break down, the best recourse is selection of an alternative school for the parents and pupil in question.

Increased variety and choice in local schooling seem to me to be more likely to provide satisfied parents than a cumbersome and authoritarian, local government functionary administered, complaints procedure.

Henry Stewart's picture
Sun, 18/11/2012 - 22:17


Schools are very different from travel agents. If you don't like one travel agent, you go to another. If a travel agent doesn't meet needs, they go bust.

This isn't what happens in schools. Uprooting your child from the school where they are and where their friends are is not the same as switching travel agent or supermarket. And why should parents have to.

They will be great schools and not-so-great schools. A system based on DfE monitoring 25,000 schools remotely is not realistic, and impractical compared to the LEA and a School Improvement Partner that knows each school well.

We are not talking about cumbersome or authoritarian but a light tough level of support and challenge that benefits all.

Tony Chuan's picture
Mon, 19/11/2012 - 05:57

Thank you very much for your response.

Variety and diversity in state education offers parents the same choice available in the private sector, where parents choose the school they believe best suited to their child.

If the relationship between school and parent/pupil breaks down, alternative schools are readily available.

Parents, of course, shouldn't have to switch but should be able to if it is clearly in the best interests of all parties.

Freedom of choice always brings benefits and the IT revolution is, indeed, having profoundly beneficial effects in education.

'Open courses will hopefully help break down barriers of socioeconomic factors and the hierarchy of schooling to provide everyone the opportunity to learn from top institutions.'

'The Internet provides an extraordinary opportunity for students to extend the reach of their learning. Before the Internet, the resources available to students were largely those that could be found in their classrooms, in their outdated textbooks or in public libraries. The Internet enables students to reach well beyond the physical confines of their classrooms and gain access to virtually unlimited quantities of information on the topics or events they are discussing in their classrooms.'

IT offers especially valuable educational opportunities for poor people in developing countries. Students and other residents of poor countries are increasingly using the Internet—often in community Internet centers—to gain access to information and communicate via e-mail. Doctors, scientists, and other professionals, for example, can achieve cheap or free access to journals and other professional publications that are too expensive to afford in hard-copy versions.'

The challenge for state education is how to harness the IT revolution to enhance the structure and administration of education.

Experiences from outside the educational sector indicate that disintermediation, enabled by dramatic advances in information technology, will empower schools and groupings of schools to take on most if not all of the administrative and supervisory functions traditionally performed the middle tier.

To suggest any other approach is to deny the prevailing trends readily apparent in all other state or privately managed sectors of the economy.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 19/11/2012 - 10:15

Tony - "Freedom of choice always brings benefits": see faqs above about the review of research into the link between market forces and educational outcomes. The evidence was "fragmentary" and "inconclusive".

Parents can in theory choose any state school for their child just as in theory parents who can afford fees can choose any private school except the latter choice is restricted by how much the parent can afford to pay. A parent can give a preference for any state school (except, of course, in selective areas where a parent can't choose the grammar school if their child fails the 11+).

But in practice this choice is restricted by geography - schools' oversubscription criteria give distance as a criteria - but if a parent is willing and able to pay for transport, there is no reason why s/he can't apply for a place in a school many miles away. This restriction also applies to private schools unless, of course, it's boarding.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 19/11/2012 - 10:31

Tony - you are correct that IT used properly will transform education (see remarks by Keri Facer from Bristol University on thread linked below). However, pupils still need guidance by a human to navigate their way through multiple pathways, to assess accuracy of data, to analyse information, draw conclusions and so on. Used badly, IT becomes a source of misleading, even dangerous, information.

You say that schools can take on most of the administrative and supervisory functions traditionally performed by local authorities. Unfortunately, as we have seen when schools are their own admission authorities, if schools are left without supervision they can manipulate admissions to deter pupils likely to bring down results. And no school is an island - a middle tier gives valuable support especially when things go wrong. A centralised system where all schools are administered from the centre is not going to be much help if a school needs advice or assistance (eg in emergencies).

Tony Chuan's picture
Tue, 20/11/2012 - 15:23


I'm not sure many outside education will instinctively feel that it must be one of the few exceptions to prove the rule of the benefits of a competitive environment.

Tony Chuan's picture
Tue, 20/11/2012 - 15:39


I’m not sure many outside education will instinctively feel that it must be one of the few exceptions to prove the rule of the benefits of a competitive environment.

Tony Chuan's picture
Tue, 20/11/2012 - 15:39

Yes, pupils using educational IT need guidance.

I see no-one disputing that.

Regarding the 'middle tier', supervision from the centre with delegated powers to either local or roving commissioners combined with a balanced range of sensibly applied assessment criteria will solve the problems that you have identified.

Where a school is failing; things have gone wrong, the best support mechanism has to be that provided by adjacent schools and staff, supported by centrally allocated resources.

The closer the aid provision is to the problem school, the more effective it is likely to be.

The very closest provision of support and the best informed will clearly be best derived from fellow professionals within a local area school grouping.

So, in a sense, local school groupings do represent the 'middle tier' that is so much talked about.

So at least we agree on the role of a 'middle tier', if not on the operational organisation of it.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 20/11/2012 - 16:02

Tony - when market forces are introduced into education equity is at risk:

Tony Chuan's picture
Tue, 20/11/2012 - 16:50

Thank you.

There seem to be two unrelated points in the reference.

1. Evidence linking user choice with educational outcomes is mixed

2. The World Bank and the OECD both recognise that education systems which are more equitable perform better.

More recent research indicates that user choice within a competitive education system does produce higher standards:

'We find that an increase in the share of independent-school students improves
average educational performance both at the end of compulsory school and in the long
run in terms of high school grades, university attendance and years of schooling. We
further show that these effects are very robust with respect to a number of potential
issues, such as grade inflation and pre-reform trends. Interestingly, it appears that these
positive effects are primarily due to spill-over or competition effects and not that
independent-school students gain significantly more than public school students.
Notably, because it has taken time for the independent schools to become more than a
marginal phenomenon in Sweden, we have only been able to detect statistically
significant positive effects for later years (about a decade after the reform).'

Independent schools and long-run educational outcomes
– evidence from Sweden´s large scale voucher reform

Anders Böhlmark and Mikael Lindahl
October 22, 2012

This study also seems to link the two points in your reference by evidencing that competition improves educational outcomes with no adverse effect on equitability.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 20/11/2012 - 15:48

Tony - you have hit the nail on the head: "The very closest provision of support and the best informed will clearly be best derived from fellow professionals within a local area school grouping."

That was why the London Challenge was so successful: support from fellow heads, local authorities and external consultants all worked to address the particular needs of particular schools. Dismemberment of this support, or "disintermediation" (sounds like a mixture of digging up dead bodies and trying to sort out a dispute), will make that local help less likely.

And as for "centrally allocated resources"... the best-performing school systems in the world in international PISA tests tend to be those that allow schools a great deal of autonomy in, among other things, purchasing their own resources: local teachers making local decisions about what are the best materials etc for their pupils - not some official in a remote department deciding what text books, IT programmes etc will be used in all schools.

Tony Chuan's picture
Tue, 20/11/2012 - 16:32

I agree with your dislike of the word 'disintermediation'.

If there was a prize for a word most likely to make people automatically disagree with it....

I'm afraid the simple expression 'middle tier' has the same effect on me.

We will never, I think, agree on this matter, simply because I believe, given the rapid advance of IT capabilities, light touch, taxpayer mandated central direction of their own money permits the greatest level of local autonomy for all sorts of local services.

But at least we agree on the end, if not the means.

P.S. My belief in local government was completely finished off by watching Rik Mayall's performance in Gogol's 'The Government Inspector' many years ago.

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