The role of Local Authorities in school improvement was the topic for debate in David Law’s first education fringe of the Liberal Democrat Conference on 24 September 2012. It appears that the panel was set up assuming a major disagreement on the role of local authorities, however, what emerged was a general consensus.
Mr Laws set out three areas where local involvement was required: to provide services for small schools who lack the capacity to provide internally; system functions that need co-ordination that cannot be provided by Westminster or individual schools – such as admissions, place planning and exclusions; and finally the delivery of improvement.
We went on to say Ofsted should identify failure or the risk of failure but what it should not do is intervene, because that would be a conflict of roles, but there was the need for an organisation to intervene for example to replace the headteacher or governing body. Those are decisions that need a local democratic input.
Cllr Derek Osbourne, Leader of Kingston Council said that the most fragmented education system since Victorian times was being created, that there was a danger that the ball would be dropped and that the critical role of local authorities was to ensure that children and families did not suffer from this fragmentation.
Jon Coles, Chief Executive of United Learning, and former Department for Education officer who worked on the London Challenge project argued that there does need to be change because there are local authorities failing to be effective in tackling underperformance in schools and governing bodies who lack the strength to control a rogue headteacher.
He structured his thoughts round three themes: Sufficiency, Access and Protection, looking for a body to make sure there are enough good places available, not just enough to go round; that there is someone to arbitrate if different schools do different things in relation to admissions and exclusions; and that the vulnerable are supported. Individual schools could not provide all of these services alone.
Looking forward, Jon Coles did not want the introduction of more layers between the school and Whitehall and that much more could be achieved by schools, and local authorities, working more effectively together, on an equal basis.
No speaker called for a new institution or body to handle local educational interests or for the local authority to be elbowed-out altogether. What is unclear and upon which there is much less agreement is exactly what the role of the local authority should be.