Do councils have a future in education?

By | October 27, 2016
Originally published:

Reading the excellent report from the Centre for Public Scrutiny (CfPS) on accountability and the ever-changing education governance architecture Your School, Your Community, I was reminded once again of how democratic local government has seen its role, responsibility and accountability for schools and their education outcomes diminished.

It was encouraging to see the Local Government Association (LGA) speak out recently as the Government plans to end councils’ role in supporting school improvement and intervening in failing schools.

The Government continually speaks about ‘empowering headteachers to take control and make decisions which are right for their school and its learners’. Ministers claim this is best or indeed, only possible, when schools become academies. This claim flies in the face of too much evidence. For several decades, local authorities have devolved and delegated power and resources to headteachers and governing bodies. Only in extremis have local authorities sought to intervene and ‘direct’ the use of these resources, change teaching methods or impose curriculum models, or micro-manage schools in any way.

However, some MATs do these things and seek to manage headteachers as if they were simply middle-tier managers not school leaders. Why is local government allowing central government to get away with peddling this myth?

The Government, having embarked on its academy and ‘free school’ programme, has now come to realise there is a need for ‘intermediate bodies’. One has to ask: ‘Do we not have local authorities to perform this role?’ Unsurprisingly, it is not possible to run and/or monitor every school in England from Whitehall as much as some secretaries of state may have wished. So the Government has encouraged the creation of MATs, established a network of regional schools commissioners (RSCs) and given the Education Funding Agency (EFA) the responsibility of allocating revenue and capital finance, and monitoring the financial performance of academies.

There are examples of ‘local’ MATs, including ones established by schools themselves in an area. These can be school led co-operatives. There is merit in this approach and builds on previous federation arrangements.

These ‘co-operative’ MATs have a better chance of being responsive to local circumstances, fostering collaboration between local schools and being locally accountable, though not, of course, through a local authority to the electorate. Local authorities could be partners and even members of such co-operatives. They could be required to collaborate with maintained schools in the area. This would be a positive response to the Government’s drive for academisation and a good example of local government leadership of place.

However, many of the recent waves of new MATs have involved external players – often the original chains of sponsored academies. Their approach to localism and working with local authorities seems very mixed and cannot be guaranteed. While some MATs establish local committees for individual schools – which involve local stakeholders including parents, staff, local employers and the community and sometimes the local authority – many do not do so.

There are too many examples that all key strategic, financial and education decisions are taken by the MAT board on a national basis. Local academy committees can be a step towards some form of local accountability but are no guarantee of local decisions and accountability.

Their relevance and effectiveness will depend on the powers of the governing bodies/committees, how their members are elected or selected and how parents and other local stakeholders can hold them to account and dismiss them if necessary.

In some cases we are seeing local school governing bodies with powers and accountabilities being replaced by ‘glorified parent/teacher associations – PTAs’. There are even examples of MATs which exclude parent and staff representation on local academy level committees and even more do so at the MAT level board. No local authority would have got away with this even if it had wanted such an approach.

Parents and communities are anxious and concerned,especially when MATs are national, rather than local, and have schools spread across the country, making it harder to show any serious local focus and local understanding. As the CfPS report argues, parents should have a right to know whom to turn to when they are dissatisfied with the performance of their child’s school. Ordinarily, they will start with the headteacher and then turn to the governors. However, if headteachers and governors do not have the final say about what happens, where next for the aggrieved or concerned parent? Clearly it would fall to the MAT and its chief executive and board, but they may not be local and may or may not be accessible. If the MAT cannot (or will not) offer the answers, that would leave only the RSC or the secretary of state.

How many parents are aware of this new cadre of civil servants or their growing teams of staff and advisers, let alone their powers or where to find them? The days when parents could approach their local councillor and/or the local authority for an answer are dwindling. Power, access and accountability is being centralised – and at a pace. Witness the irony: this is happening when government is at the same time talking about localism, decentralisation and devolution. More surprisingly, few – if any – of the local authorityled devolution bids have included taking back control from the EFA and RSCs.

Schools cannot sit and operate in isolation from other local services and local authorities are well placed to ensure this can be the reality. Schools should be at the heart of inclusive growth and many more policy agendas. Likewise, schools have assets which should be available for wider public use and can be ideal locations for public services such as libraries, GP practices and others. Local authorities can work with schools to make this happen.

At present, local authorities retain responsibilities for school allocations, ensuring there are sufficient places and support for learners with special needs. This requires a much greater direct involvement with local schools than the Government’s academies, MATs, EFA and RSC approaches are likely to allow. This is why I urge local government to up its demand of central government for local democratic accountability for schools.

This is not a call to go back to the pre-2000 model but for local democracy. Significant delegation to maintained schools has to continue and academies can play a major role in local education provision, but there should be local accountability. The immediate push from local government could be for local authorities and/or combined authorities and elected mayors having the powers to:

Commission schools.
Agree local education and social outcome targets that are consistent with local inclusive growth, social and demographic needs.
Quality assure.
Facilitate school collaboration.
Lead on capacity planning, capital expenditure and new school building and through their scrutiny roles hold academies, governors and even MATs to account.

Local government should demand the right to appoint a proportion of governors to academies and maintained schools; and where these governance is at a MAT level to MAT boards As the LGA argues, local government should have the power to quality assure academies – including those in MATs – and hold them to account for education outcomes, their stewardship of public money and commitment to local communities.

Local authorities should be have the right to agree and veto arrangements for setting up MATs, which MATs may operate in their areas and whether there is a need for MATs. Local school co-operatives working with the local authority would be a much more suitable model. The LGA could go further and argue for local authorities, elected mayors and combined authorities to take over the function and activities of the RSCs and EFA. Local government can then be held to account for education performance by local people.

I believe this is the critical local government education agenda and debate alongside the demand for adequate funding to support a world-class education system. Let the debate begin. Let’s restore democratic accountability.