Do Local Authorities Still Have a Role?

Henry Stewart's picture
While the government seeks to reduce the role of local government in education to the minimum, Ofsted Chief Inspector Michael Wilshaw continues to argue for a key role for them. His plans to have Ofsted inspect school improvement services for the first time have been described as giving local authorities "responsibility without power".

The Local Government Association had argued such inspections no longer made sense because local authorities have no power over academies. Wilshaw responded, in this week's Municipal Journal, that they "still have a role to ensure good provision" & "the ball is in the local authorities court to demonstrate they are up to the challenge."

Many see Wilshaw in line with the DfE on this, piling the pressure on local authorities. But another interpretation is that they ahve very different views. The DfE has made clear (see below) that it doesn't agree with Wilshaw's statements. As Head of Mossbourne he worked closely with Hackney's Learning Trust, and the Chief Inspector has always argued that a middle tier like local authorities is needed as only a local body can know their schools well enough. is he providing an argument for local authorities to build on?

Co-incidentally, I've got an article in Municipal Journal this week on the same subject, putting the case that a central role for local authorities in education is vital. As its behind a paywall, I'm including it below in full:

"They may not be our schools but they are still our kids"

The reason we have academies is because local education authorities were “useless” and “rubbish” in running schools. That was the view of Conservative MPs Stewart Jackson and Jackie Doyle-Price, respectively, at the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee in December. The PAC was reviewing the National Audit Office report on the £1 billion overspend on academies. Giving evidence on behalf of the Local Schools Network I was struck by the level of animosity to local government from the MPs on the committee.

The education system, for 11+ provision at least, will for the foreseeable future be dominated by academies. Over half of secondary schools now have a funding agreement directly with the Department for Education. Can such a distant body have effective oversight over so many schools and what is the role for the local authority in this new landscape?

As a Chair of Governors of an inner London comprehensive my experience of the local authority has been positive. They are quick to identify under-performance and intervene, when necessary, with challenge and practical support. And it acts regularly to prevent school failure. I know – because it has happened to over a dozen of my colleagues - that, if my school underperforms, I may get a call from the LEA suggesting either I step aside or I that should get the headteacher to step aside.

The DfE is now effectively the largest LEA in the country. Will it know schools well enough to play this role? In the new landscape, as with all schools, some academies will do well and some will start to falter.

“The DfE is taking action with schools below the floor targets”, comments Alan Wood, Director of Childrens Services for Hackney Council. “I am yet to be convinced the DfE is prepared to take effective action where academies are coasting – are above floor target but not achieving what they should given their intake.”

The new academy chains, now responsible for hundreds of schools, add further complication. The key argument for academies has been autonomy so it is odd that for so many the local authority has simply been replaced by a new body, without the local base or any democractic accountability. MPs on the PAC were astonished to discover that academies in chains are not required to reveal how they spend their public funding. This only need be reported for the chain as a whole, which could include dozens of schools. Unlike local authorities, chains do not fall within Ofsted’s remit and the method by which they are held accountable is unclear.

Ofsted Chief Inspector Michael Wilshaw, previously head of Mossbourne Academy, made clear in November that he sees a definite role for local government:

"A good local authority will know what is happening in all of its schools, including academies. It might not have visited them (but it) will know from the data that's coming through - the word on the street, if you like, from parents - about what's happening in these academies." (TES, 30/11/12)

Indeed all Ofsted school reports will now include a comment on the role of the local authority. Michael Gove has recently written to all Directors of Childrens Services making clear that local authorities are the champion of standards for all children in all schools.

However Chris Wormald, Permanent Secretary at the DfE, argued at the PAC that the statutory role of local authorities was limited to areas like special education needs and child protection. Beyond that it would “take a view and an interest in anything that is going on in its area”, suggesting it was similar to the role they play with NHS services.

Alan Wood disagrees. “My starting point is the moral role of the local authority. We have responsibility for ensuring all children go to school, and implicit recognition that children can go to school of good quality. The only way to do that is to have a close relationship with all those schools, to understand their issues - and to encourage, support and challenge those schools. After all, it is us that parents will come to if they are not happy with the local school.”

Do local authorities justify the MPs’ disdain? Many of the most important developments in education - including delegation of authority, a real focus on the quality of teaching, and local management of schools - were initially introduced by LEAs, before being picked up by central government.

The DfE’s GCSE data shows a very positive picture for local authorities. The DfE claimed that GCSE results for sponsored academies grew at twice the rate of maintained schools in 2011. However the difference disappears when academies are compared with similar schools.

Look at schools where fewer than 35% achieved five GCSEs including English and Maths (grades A to C) in 2008. Academies recorded an 18.6% improvement by 2011. A very impressive result but those that continued as maintained schools managed a 19.1% improvement. Some local authorities have tackled poor school performance through academy conversion and some have used other methods – but both have resulted in success stories.

Local authorities may have no statutory powers of intervention but a constructive role for them is articulating and advocating, and being fearless in tackling failing schools. They need to remember that, as Alan Wood puts it “they may not be our schools any more but they are still our kids.”


Share on Twitter

Be notified by email of each new post.

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.