Twigg avoids the question

 

Given the rapidly changing education landscape and the current debate about the relationship between local authorities and schools, it was disappointing that Stephen Twigg, Shadow Secretary of State for Education, failed to set out the Labour party’s position on this key issue.

When he spoke at the Labour Party conference, he acknowledged that all decisions about education should not be made by Whitehall.  He also said Labour will “restore a partnership between local and central government”.   He gave no details about how this would be achieved or what he saw as the local authority role.

Further, he said he wants “every school to have the freedom to innovate”.  Surely this is no different to the current Government’s policy that will lead to all schools becoming academies.

Obviously we will have to wait a bit longer to see how Labour policy differs from that of the Coalition.

 

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No agreement on third tier role

The newly published LGiU report, ‘Should we shed the middle tier?’ was launched at an LGiU/NUT fringe meeting at the Liberal Democrat Conference on 25 September 2012.

The report, based on interviews with a selection of leading politicians, researchers and policy makers, showed general agreement that there needs to be something between schools and Westminster – which everyone is calling a third tier.  There was no agreement, however, on is what the role of that third tier should be.

There was consensus that accountability and ensuring compliance with the code on admissions were functions that could not be carried out by schools or central government.    There was also general agreement that local authorities already existed and  were in a good place to carry out these roles – so there is no need to create a new body.

Most contributors agreed that school improvement was best delivered by schools working with other schools, not by a ‘third tier’.  They emphasised, however, that strategic oversight and direction of local education should be independent of local schools.

One contributor,  Jon Coles (Chief Executive Officer, United Learning Trust), argued that councils could only be a real provider of an independent accountability function once, as in housing, they no longer had a significant provision role.  Interestingly enough, at a fringe meeting at the 2011 Liberal Democrat Conference, a similar view was expressed  by David Laws (recently appointed Minister of State for Schools).

Will local authorities only step up to the mark and properly fulfil their role as the focus for democratic accountability and as the  champions of their local community, if their responsibility as a provider of education is taken away from them?

No one wants to elbow-out local authorities

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.

Stimulating the debate

We are seeking to engage people in the debate around the future role of Local Authorities in education.

The education landscape is changing rapidly and there is much uncertainly about future roles and the relationship between local authorities and schools.

We cannot rely on old models to provide effective solutions for this new environment and we want all stakeholders to have a chance to contribute to this debate.

Earlier this year we carried out a survey to gather the views of Headteachers and Chairs of Governors, as we felt their views were not being adequately heard.

We want to develop the debate and would welcome views of the role of the local authority and its relationship with schools. We are gathering contributions towards a pamphlet to explore these issues which we will publish later in the year.

Please post your comments here.

Views of Headteachers and Chairs of Governors on the role of the LA

The increasing independence of schools as they move to academy status is just the latest stage in the journey of school autonomy which can trace its origins back many years through foundation schools, grant maintained schools, and local management of schools.

As more schools take advantage of increased autonomy and freedom from local government, inevitably, the relationship between schools and local authorities has to be redefined. Whilst politicians and local authority education officers are staking their claim to a place in the new world order, the voice of schools themselves seems often to be overlooked.

To explore the views of headteachers and chairs of governors, Tamarind Chambers carried out a survey by email questionnaire sent to of a range of secondary schools across England between October 2011 and February 2012.

Survey results

The survey shows that schools value their increased autonomy and freedoms but recognise that, within clearly defined parameters, the local authority still has a role to play.

Two areas stood out as matters that schools did not see as a role for the local authority.

First, schools were clear on their wish to have control of the curriculum. The vast majority of Chairs and Headteachers said that local authorities should not have any control over the curriculum in schools, with just one respondent saying that the local authority should actually determine the curriculum.

The second highest ‘no’ vote was on the governing body – with over a third of respondents saying that the local authority should have no role in removing or replacing a governing body and nearly half saying that they should only be able to do so under certain conditions.

There was general agreement across schools on the local authority’s role in the provision for children with special educational needs. In their responses, most Chairs and Headteachers said that local authorities should continue to be responsible for assessing the special educational needs of individual pupils and for providing appropriate education to meet those assessed needs and controlling the funding.

The responses to some questions revealed contradictory views. For example whilst most respondents said that local authorities should have a role in planning and co-ordinating school places, there was less support for local authorities having specific powers to make changes to the size of a school or alter a school’s admissions decisions.

A clear majority of Chairs and Headteachers were against local authorities having the power to enter and inspect schools as they chose. However, a large proportion did think the local authority should be able to intervene in a failing school, albeit under certain conditions.

There was general agreement that local authorities should collect and report on data about schools in their area, and provide advice and support on school standards.

Whilst schools wish to guard their independence and ability to deliver education in the way they feel best for them, they also want someone to act as a ‘policeman’ or arbitrator to protect them from potentially damaging actions by another school.

Full report

The full data from the responses to the survey has been published in our report ‘The role of the local authority in education: Views of Headteachers and Chairs of Governors’, that can be found here.

The role of the Local Authority in education

Tamarind Chambers has published its report on a survey conducted amongst Headteachers and Chairs of Governors to gather their views on the role that Local Authorities should play in education.

The survey shows that schools value their increased autonomy and freedoms but recognise that, within clearly defined parameters, the Local Authority still has a role to play.

In their responses, Chairs and Headteachers said that Local Authorities should continue to be responsible for assessing the special educational needs of individual pupils and providing appropriate education to meet their assessed needs. By contrast, they said that Local Authorities should not have any control over the curriculum.

Further, a clear majority were against Local Authorities having the power to enter and inspect schools as they chose. However, there was general agreement that Local Authorities should collect and report on data about schools in their area.

The responses to some questions revealed contradictory views. For example whilst most respondents said that local authorities should have a role in planning and co-ordinating school places, there was less support for Local Authorities having specific powers to make changes to the size of a school or alter a school’s admissions decisions.

Tamarind Chambers carried out the survey by email questionnaire. The questionnaire was sent to Headteachers and Chairs of Governors of a range of secondary schools across England between October 2011 and February 2012. Responses were received from 80 schools.

The report gives an account of the responses and a detailed analysis of the answers to the questionnaire.

 

School improvement … whose role is it?

The Schools White Paper, 2010, ‘The Importance of Teaching’ makes it clear that schools are responsible for their own improvement.

At the Education Select Committee on 31 January 2012, Michael Gove said that ‘academies can choose to purchase school improvement services from their local authority or from somewhere else’.  This is consistent with what is said in the White Paper about schools having the choice over where they get their improvement support.

The White Paper said that there will be a range of providers of school improvement services from which schools can choose – including national and local leaders in education, teaching schools and working in partnership with a strong school.  Interestingly this list does not include local authorities. However, the White Paper states that a local authority can decide what role it wishes to play in supporting school improvement.  This can include the provision of improvement services for schools that want to get this support from their local authority.

The White Paper is clear that it is up to schools to decide how school improvement is delivered, however, the Education Act does not explain how this will be achieved.

It is important that the expected regulations give practical effect to the aims of the White Paper.

Briefing on school improvement in the Schools White Paper

Accountability … local or central?

One aspect of the debate about the role of local authorities in education is where the responsibility will lie for tackling failing schools, once all schools have become academies.

Currently, for maintained schools – those that have not become academies or free schools – the local authority can intervene when a school is under-performing and a headteacher appears unable to turn it round.  What a local authority can do is provide management support for the school or, in extreme cases, remove the headteacher.   However, for academies, the local authority does not have these powers.

For an academy, an Ofsted report could be the first public sign that there is a problem.  However, by this stage, children’s education could have suffered – Ofsted inspections could be some years apart.

A school would benefit from having support that is timely, discreet, flexible and relevant to help it overcome a temporary difficulty.  The question then arises, should this be provided on a national or local basis?

We would argue that this important education function is best provided by an organisation that is local and accountable rather than a remote central-government quango.

One model could be a school peer group network, where a group of schools provide academic monitoring and support to each other.  Another could be that this function is provided by the local authority as part of their new ‘strategic role’.

The experience of local authorities having responsibility for performance in schools is not all good.  However  local authorities  do have an important role in providing local accountability and scrutiny on behalf of their local community.

This is an opportunity to engage local authorities and schools, elected representatives and professionals, and the wider community, in the development of  new and innovative ways to improve education for all.

What role for Local Authorities in Education?

According to latest Government figures, there are now 1350 academies in England.

This Government has declared its intention to make all schools academies – an extension of the previous government’s policy which introduced academy status but only as a way of improving failing schools.

Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, says that academy schools will benefit from greater freedoms and flexibilities and be freed from local authority control.

An academy school is a publicly funded independent school, that is no longer maintained by the local authority, but is directly funded by and accountable to the Department for Education.

However, Michael Gove has said that: “in a more autonomous schools system, local authorities have a crucial role to play” in “championing parents and families, supporting vulnerable families and championing education excellence”.

The government insists that councils will still perform a “strong strategic” role in education.

Politicians, educational professionals and unions are now arguing about what this means and jostling for a position in this new world order. But there are bigger issues around accountability and scrutiny in education that existed before any schools became academies.

The real challenge is to define a new role for local authorities that provides effective local accountability and scrutiny of education without them having to interfere with the day-to-day running of schools, or necessarily providing education itself.