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.

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.