Debate the election issues with LSN
With the local and European polls out of the way, the way is clear now for 11 months of electioneering and policy wrangling until the General Election next May.
The recent “Trojan Horse” story has raised a number of questions about the way schools and governors are currently held to account locally and nationally. Michael Gove has appointed regional schools commissioners to manage academies and free schools but has little to say about the future local authority role, which is still (in legal terms) substantial and includes provision of school places, admissions, the requirement to intervene in schools causing concern and to provide for children with SEN.
Ofsted has also appointed regional directors and last month a Labour Party review
into the local authority role, carried out by former Education Secretary David Blunkett, proposed the creation of a new Independent Director of School Standards , possibly to work across local authority boundaries, brokering collaboration, commissioning school places and holding schools to account.
The LSN founders, and contributors, don’t always agree on the fine points of these policy proposals so decided to start a debate about the whole question of “local oversight” here…
: "Overall I think the Blunkett proposals are an inevitable tentative first step to resolving the chaos that Michael Gove will leave behind. As I explained in my Guardian Education column last month Gove will leave such a mess behind him that a clean solution will be hard to devise overnight. To understand the extent of the fragmentation and atomisation read the article by David Wolfe QC
in the Education Law Journal last year. In it the London barrister spells out the legal minefield created by thousands of schools accountable only to the DFE via a multitude of subtly different funding agreements, depending on how and when each school was established.
That a new order must arise from this chaos seems to me inevitable, preferably one that creates strong, collaborative local systems that embrace ALL schools, whether free, maintained or academy. Given that so many schools now lie outside the LA framework, it may be necessary to create a new all encompassing layer".
:"Surely the simplest response would be to make all state schools – whatever their structure – accountable to the local authority? If it wasn’t for that strong Westminster prejudice against local government, that would surely be the proposal.
The distrust of national politicians for local government is a peculiarly British disease, in probably the most centralised system of government in the developed world, and one which has caused considerable damage to our society.The chaos over school places is a direct result of Michael Gove’s refusal to let councils plan and build new schools to meet the local need.
And his intense distrust of local authorities (which he apparently sees as part of his much disdained “blob”) means that now almost any group can put together a business plan to run chains of academies. The fact many have precious little educational experience seems to have been an advantage in his book.
I have described elsewhere the result of this. Of 151 local authorities only two (1.3%) have an average GCSE benchmark, without equivalents, of 35% or below. Of the seven largest chains, four of them (57%) have an average GCSE benchmark of 35% or below.
Compare those two statistics. What this means is that the personal ideological dislike of the Secretary of State for local educational authorities has led directly – in the schools in these under-performing chains – to lower achievement for thousands of our young people."
"I can understand the reaction of people who are disappointed that councils can’t take over all these functions again. I have sympathy with that view. Some local authorities have successfully nurtured and maintained their families of schools against the tide of national policy, and done so more effectively than many academy chains. We shouldn’t forget that.
But in other parts of the country local authorities haven’t been as successful as the ones you and I are involved with and in many areas the infrastructure is disintegrating; local authorities either don’t want, or haven’t got the capacity, to do what is needed
The Blunkett proposal for a new director post, appointed by one or more local authorities and responsible for intervention and brokering collaboration, possibly across borough boundaries as in the case of the hugely successful London Challenge, is more sensible than Gove’s regional commissioners who are only responsible for academies and free schools, or the idea of Ofsted running both an inspectorate and a school improvement service."
: "I can understand the reason behind Blunkett’s proposal. It is likely that if he had recommended a greater role for local authorities, his report would have been sidelined by national politicians with a deep distrust of the local, enhanced in Hunt’s case by the apparent poor performance of his constituency Stoke-on-Trent’s Council (though he did say in his Sunday Times interview of 25th May that it was improving).
The original academies programme too was a response to a perceived failure of local government or, arguably, to the failure of one council, Hackney. Key Labour educational players (Tony Blair, Andrew Adonis, Michael Barber and Charles Clarke) were involved in the politics of Hackney Council in the 80s and 90s. I have heard a description of how they would sit on the Downing Street sofa, scoffing at the absurdities of Hackney schools and determining a way of avoiding council involvement.
I was a governor in Hackney then and I do agree that the system was dysfunctional and letting down local children. At roughly this time Estelle Morris intervened to create the Learning Trust
(an arms-length not-for-profit organization), under whose co-ordination Hackney’s education was transformed and is now arguably among the best in the country. It is true that the majority of Hackney secondaries are academies, most of which are newly built. However the local authority ensured there were no chains involved, that all schools were committed to working together and that admissions were co-ordinated by the local authority. And the transformation in primary schools in Hackney have taken place, up to this year, with no academy involvement.
But the important thing to note is the fundamentally different approach. Adonis and Blair invented a new type of school to get over the problems they had experienced in one council, which has led to the chaotic system that Blunkett so accurately describes. Estelle Morris provided a solution that fixed the problems in that local education authority and laid the basis for over a decade of improvement there.
You may be right, Fiona, that the educational capabilities of many local authorities have disintegrated over the last four years. But many are still performing strongly. You have yourself powerfully described the transformation enabled by Tower Hamlets Council
in one of the most deprived areas in the country.
This is the decision that Tristram Hunt faces: Does he create a new and entirely unproven education layer or does he recognize the decades of experience and the large number of high-performing local authorities, and seek to sort out those that are under-performing."
: "Unfortunately in politics it is always easier to go forward and create something new than it is to re-create the past so I think whatever our personal preferences, the pragmatic approach is to accept that , should Labour win the next election or even be the biggest party, there will be some sort of new model of local accountability ,involving central and local government together, which is effectively what the Learning Trust was in its day.
I suppose you could argue for a tailored approach applicable to the authorities which are seriously under performing, but I am more attracted by the idea of a systematic approach to this issue across the country so that children, regardless of the type of school they are in, or the area in which they live, can expect the same high standard of accountability.
I also don’t think we should overlook Blunkett’s other proposals that every school should be put on the same legal footing in terms of curriculum, admissions and so on. Under the Labour plan schools will actually be built where they are needed, rather than where they are not. Open competitions will be run by the IDSS to choose who should run them with no presumption that any one “type “ of school or provider is best. For the first time in almost a decade new schools won’t have to be academies. I consider this a huge sea change.
And I like the idea of commissioning places across borough boundaries. In an area like London, where a combination of parent choice and very small local authorities mean that children are frequently educated in different local authority areas to those in which they live, a regional approach to need and demand would be more efficient and effective."
HENRY STEWART: "
Should one never re-create the past? A majority in opinion polls call for the railways to come back under public ownership and I certainly hope Labour will fulfill its promise to get rid of the bedroom tax.
There are many differences between the Learning Trust and the proposed DSS. The Learning Trust just worked in one local authority but took on the full responsibilities of a local education authority, and still fitted within local accountability.
In contrast the DSS proposal surely creates far more questions than it answers. It has been described to me, by a local government expert, as “the most muddled proposal I have ever seen”. Which powers and responsibilities lie with whom are unclear, as is who the DSS will be accountable to.
On the one hand the report suggests an increase in LEA powers, with all school funding coming through the local authority. On the other hand it is the DSS and not the LEA that will intervene and challenge when a school is perceived to be under-performing and in proposing that all schools join a federation seems to suggest that this is the body which provides the support and challenge that schools need.
Blunkett provides an accurate analysis of the problem our schools face, of an atomised system with schools working under hundreds of different funding agreements. He gives the example of a local authority that knows one of the academies in its area is under-performing but has no power over it and cannot get the DfE to take any action, which is a common problem in the current situation. And many of his proposals are good, giving all schools the same freedoms."
: "I don’t think you can equate repealing the bedroom tax to rolling back the years to the early 90s, which was really when this experiment with independent state schools started. The fundamental problem remains that there are now thousands of schools contracted directly to the Secretary of State so it is impossible to just wave a magic wand and give them back to the local authority, as I explained here.
But you are right. There are still too many unanswered questions. Labour must explain clearly how the local authority and the independent directorate will relate to each other, how the statutory duties will be divided up and to go back to David Wolfe’s original piece, how will the jungle of different rules governing each academy and free school be streamlined and what legislation will be necessary to ensure all this happens seamlessly?
Parents probably don’t think much about who actually ensures the smooth operation of their local schools. But they do care when things go wrong, they care when they can’t get a place for their child, when they are not listened to and when they can’t get quick and easy redress. That is what these proposals are about.
One of the reasons some of us opposed the Labour academy model from the start was the fear of how schools, run directly by contract with the Secretary of State, might be used in the hands of a different party. Depending on who wins the General Election, there may be worse to come, which is probably why these proposals haven’t drawn forth any serious challenge. Everyone knows deep down that something must be done. The Blunkett review may just be a tentative first step, but it is an essential one."
Let’s face reality. Local authorities are always going to be part of the solution. The DSS appears to be little more than a one-person quango. It can alert people to problems in individual schools but it will not be the source of support and school improvement. Those will either be provided by a similar chaotic range of hundreds or thousands of chains, federations and others as at present or it will be provided by the 151 local education authorities – with a focus on making sure they are all effective.
You are right to conclude with the needs of parents. Where do they go when things go wrong? They don’t go to the DFE and I’m not sure they will go to the new DSS. They overwhelmingly go to their council and (even if they didn’t bother to vote) to their local councillor. Call me old-fashioned but that good old democratic accountability is something to support and enhance, not disregard in a new combination of centralisation and atomisation."