Freedom and responsibility

If you subscribe to the principle that freedom for individuals and institutions and the devolution of power means that better and more appropriate decisions are made, then why should that principle not hold true for schools?

On 22 September 2012, David Laws, in his first speech to the Liberal Democrat Conference as Education Minister, said: “Greater autonomy is a characteristic of high performing school systems”.

He made it clear that he had confidence in schools – in headteachers, teachers and governors – to do the right thing for their pupils.

He said that every school can, and must, be a good school but that this cannot be achieved by trying to run all schools from Westminster. It requires a partnership with headteachers, teachers and governors; proper funding and innovation in the system; and devolving power and letting go.

He said that he does not wish to micro-manage 25,000 schools from Whitehall, as that “would undermine innovation and undermine informed decisions of heads and teachers”.

However Mr Laws stressed that with freedom there needs to be accountability and described it as ‘freedom to do’ not just ‘freedom from’.

He said he did not want to be heavy handed with schools, but that they had to deliver. Schools spend tax-payers money and are the guardians’ of our children’s education, therefore they should be held to account, and must be able to demonstrate that they are spending our money effectively, improving standards and opportunities for children.

Schools, who say they are keen to be in charge of their own destiny, must accept that with autonomy comes responsibility, and politicians, if they mean what they say about freedom and innovation, must learn to let go.

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.

Schools want control of curriculum

New research matches our findings on the role of the local authority that the most important thing for schools is control over their curriculum.

A study, conducted with Headteachers in 151 academies, by law firm Browne Jacobson with the Independent Academies Association, revealed that  half of the schools had  made changes to the curriculum.   Only 9% made changes to the length of term or school days and only 8% have made changes to staff pay and conditions.

The survey we conducted with  secondary school Heads and Chairs of Governors, showed that the most important issues for schools, regardless of whether they were academies or not, was taking control over their curriculum.  Only one respondent said that the curriculum should be controlled by the local authority and 76 % said that the local authority should have no control over the curriculum at all.

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.

Where are the Governors in the Gove Agenda?

In September, Michael Gove said: “Teachers, not politicians or bureaucrats, should run schools.” What is striking as you review many of the speeches made by the Secretary of State, is the lack of recognition of the role of the Governing Body.

Whilst educational professionals rightly should be in charge of the day-to-day running of schools, the Governing Body is responsible for the strategic leadership of a school whether maintained, academy or voluntary aided. In fact, in their promotion of academies the government has elevated the role and responsibility of governing bodies.

Announcements by the Secretary of State often refer to money going to teachers and headteachers, of teachers being free to run schools, leaving the impression that it is only the teaching profession that has an interest in or responsibility for the effective running of a school. The purpose of a school is to provide education for its students in the interests of the wider community. A school is not just for current students, parents and teachers – its role is to provide education for the benefit of the wider community, now and in the future.

Gove frequently refers to improving educational achievement and broadening educational perspective. This can only really be achieved by the effective engagement of the whole range of stakeholders.

What Governors bring into a school is a whole range of knowledge and experience from their personal and professional lives which complement the expertise of those running the school on a day-to-day basis. A feature of a successful school is a governing body willing to engage with and challenge the headteacher and the school’s leadership team.

In England, over 300,000 people give their time voluntarily to serve as school governors, representing the largest volunteer group in the UK. If Gove really wants to improve the education of our children (and to further the government’s Big Society Agenda), he needs to harness and engage the skills and commitment of this army of volunteers.