Government is failing on education a time for councils to take control
In January this column highlighted the urgency of local governmentredefining its role in light of the government’s school reforms. Over the past two years perceptions of the academy movement have shifted.
When, under Labour, about 200 of the poorest performing schools were given academy status, it was seen as freeing them from local government control. Now the number is climbing past 1,600, it looks like a school system that is simultaneously fragmenting and being centralised under the increasingly interventionist education secretary Michael Gove.
Whichever one of these contradictory descriptions you think fits, it is clear that accountability to local communities is being rapidly eroded.
The debate has been complicated by the proposal from Ofsted chief inspector Michael Wilshaw of a network of local commissioners, separate from local government, to identify poorly performing academies that should be stripped of their status or have their headteacher replaced.
Councils still have important statutory education functions on issues such as performance and standards, safeguarding, planning and provision of places and Special Educational Needs, although the boundaries of their responsibilities or their power to act are often unclear. For example, councils have little power to intervene in a failing academy or free school, and while they have the responsibility to ensure there are sufficient places, the current bulge in the number of pupils is exposing severe limitations to their ability to do this.
The balancing act for councils is to define a role that respects and promotes schools’ autonomy while acting as the champion of children and parents – unlike the bad old days when a small minority of councils seemed to champion bad teachers and poor schools.
Both Solace and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services have recently spoken out in this debate. In Filling the gap: the championing role of English councils in education, Solace calls for the government to work with councils, academy sponsors and others to agree a national protocol for monitoring and intervening in failing schools. These would be backed up by local agreements on cooperation, support and intervention.
The emphasis of the proposals is on fostering mutual support between schools, with agreed measures for benchmarking performance and ready access to improvement support. In all this the council’s role would be to give voice to parents and children, particularly the most vulnerable – so there would be a strong focus on safeguarding.
From the schools’ point of view, this would balance increased local co-operation with less control by the Department for Education. The mutual support and local monitoring would also act as a welcome antidote to the peculiar terror that seems to seize schools at the mention of Ofsted.
A particular appeal of Solace’s approach is that it would strengthen councils’ work on both health and economic growth. The relationship with schools would support the health and wellbeing board and the new public health teams in co-ordinating activity around the pressing priority of teenage sexual health.
On the economy, local government can exploit its unique ability to broker relationships with local partners to champion lifelong learning – promoting the opportunities and bringing together employers with education and training providers to meet the needs of the local jobs market and tackle unemployment.
In the context of stalled economic growth and the growing scandal around A4e and the government’s welfare-to-work scheme, local government should push hard on this– the Made in Whitehall interventions of the Department for Work and Pensions are failing.
The Association of Directors of Children’s Services has been developing similar ideas, describing local government (possibly unwisely) as the “missing link” in school improvement.
Education is one of the few policy areas where Labour has had the courage to commit some of its thoughts to paper, inDevolving Power in Education by shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg. He talks of “a strong role for local government” but then describes a “middle tier” without definitively linking the two.
Local government should point him in the direction of Solace’s paper, while spelling out to ministers how councils can play a bigger role in education, the economy and health without threatening schools’ autonomy.
Filed under: Education News, Education Policy, In Case You Missed It - 26th May 2012 Tagged: | Association of Directors of Children's Services, education policy, Local Authorities, Ofsted, School Standards, Sir Michael Wilshaw, Solace