Questions of Education Governance

Where are we now

 

‘School Led’ has become an article of faith over the last 10 years for Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative politicians, but it is not now delivering consistently in ways which everyone would accept as important features of a high performing system.

 

Institutional autonomy in the management of educational provision within each establishment is a success.  Provided that governance arrangements for the individual institution are accountable and responsive to local communities, a system which empowers education professionals to manage individual institutions is highly desirable.

 

But there is also a clear need for governance at a whole system level to ensure that the system as a whole is fit for purpose.

 

There is mounting evidence that inherent contradictions in the muddled DFE ‘School Led’ strategy is increasingly undermining delivery of important and fundamental preconditions.

 

  • Relocating the responsibility for institutional governance to Multi-Academy Trusts reduces local parental and community participation;

 

  • A confused mixed economy for school place planning where the ‘last resort ‘ duty of LAs to secure sufficient school places is over-laid by a market economy of self- proposed MATS, individual Academies and Free Schools;

 

  • The system is characterised by weaker accountability of schools to their immediate local

 

No other leading education system, out of the 65 Countries monitored by OECD, has adopted such a fragmented, and market driven, ‘School Led’ approach.

 

During the last quarter century we have seen complexity compounded by the advent of Grant Maintained Schools, City Technology Colleges, Specialist Schools, Academies (Labour version), Foundation Schools, Trust schools, Beacon Schools, Academies (Coalition version), Free Schools, Studio Schools, University Technical Colleges, and Teaching Schools. Many of these were sold on the basis that ‘local authority control’ was stifling innovation. More ‘autonomy’, supported by energy and expertise from outside the ‘educational establishment’, was supposed to be better. The rewards from institutional management of education have been wrongly assumed to apply equally to the management of the delivery of the whole system.

 

In 2010 Michael Gove set about turning the quasi-market created by his predecessors into a real one. Quality was to be driven up by creating Free Schools whether or not additional places were needed. Oversupply would lead to failed schools going to the wall rather than closures following managed capacity reduction. This, with academy conversion, was intended and has, led to more and more schools being provided by private companies under contracts with the Secretary of State.

 

However, recent events show the shine is beginning to come off. There is no respected research which demonstrates that competition improves standards. The Education Select Committee concluded in 2016 that there was no strong evidence that academicisation was driving up standards. OFSTED in its 2015 and 16 Annual Reports concluded that secondary standards had flatlined. The OECD international PISA report of 2016 said the same thing. Most recently on 1 May 2017 Rosemary Bennet reported in The Times on estimates that as many as half of the 42 University Technical Colleges are failing to recruit sufficient pupils.

 

Other anecdotal evidence is plentiful. Expensive free school projects have failed through mismanagement or attracting too few pupils.  There have been regular examples of financial irregularity, examination fraud and accusations of inappropriate or abusive behaviour by proprietors or staff.

 

More damning is the collapse of the intellectual model underpinning the reforms. Educationists with a grasp of classic economic theory have always found the idea that a pure market could work for providing free public education risible. Now experience and international evidence has proved the point.

 

Failure is expensive in both cash and credibility. The collateral damage sustained by children in shrinking schools as they limp towards closure, and distortion of the geographical distribution of school places are politically unacceptable outcomes. The experiment in establishing a true market has clearly failed. Those in power have privately lost confidence and are trying to limit the damage without going as far as admitting to their mistakes.

 

A turning point, of sorts, was reached shortly before Theresa May became Prime Minister when controversial plans to force all schools to become academies were dropped. The idea of expanding and creating new grammar schools was then floated by the new premier. But there has been no real stepping back from the ‘Gove’ market based reforms.  On the contrary the Government is trying to increase the number of schools joining Multi Academy Trusts by stealth. The £600m funding for Local Authorities to support schools has been removed this year even though about 80% of primary schools still look to LAs for support. The Government claims to have restored £140m of this funding, but this LAs are not expecting to benefit as priority is given to MATs.

 

There is, however, a strong case based on what government says it wishes to achieve, for doing just this. The 2016 education policy White Paper articulated a ‘new role’ for local authorities “. . . focused on three areas:

 

  • Ensuring every child has a school place
  • Ensuring the needs of vulnerable pupils are met; and
  • Acting as champions for all parents and ”

 

This part of the White Paper has not been repudiated by Theresa May’s government and, if it means anything at all, should lead to providing LAs with appropriate ‘systems management’ powers and, equally important, allowing them to build capacity to deliver the desired outcomes.

 

What Should Happen Next

 

Most parents want a good school nearby, where their children will be happy and succeed. The market approach assumes variations in quality which should be unacceptable. Only a coherently planned system can get close to satisfying everybody at reasonable cost. This is, quintessentially, why structures are important not because they determine outcomes in individual schools but because they are essential to creating circumstances in which all schools can succeed. The achievement of a target of a good local school for every child and young person should mean that quality never needs to be a factor in parental choice.

 

Having a consistent structure does not mean an oppressive centralised bureaucracy. What is required is a simple and intelligible framework.

 

The multiple categorisation of schools should be abandoned. For every publicly maintained school there should be a statutory body with sufficient legal identity to own property, act as employer, appoint school governors and accept other necessary legal responsibilities. Although there would be an obvious need to modernize the terminology, there is well established precedent for this arrangement in the Voluntary Aided and “Foundation” school systems. The aim would be to secure a clearly understood and universally applied framework of organisation and accountability which would help parents and everyone in the community know how to get involved. The model would reinforce autonomy at school level.

 

The same clarity and simplicity should inform the new “middle tier” for discharging functions of governance of public education provision at a whole system level. A successful approach to a ‘middle tier’ for schools will have to include the following features.

 

The middle tier authorities must provide a coherent and consistent pattern across the whole country with no gaps or overlaps. They should be large enough to enjoy economies of scale and take a strategic view; but sufficiently local to be responsive to circumstantial and community needs. They must have sufficient power to act decisively; but that power must be tempered by local democratic accountability.

 

If this sounds like local authorities by another name it is with good reason. By definition they will be ‘local’ and to be effective they must have ‘authority’.

 

But there is no need to go back to what went before. Like schools, it is the quality of the people who are involved not the name over the door, which will determine whether they are good, bad or indifferent. The point of having a settled structure is to create a shared understanding of the tasks to be done and attract people of calibre to undertaken them.

 

Those people should be of two kinds to create a balance of technical expertise and democratic legitimacy. Accountability should be provided by a board comprising a mix of people both directly elected and appointed to reflect local communities and institutional stakeholders, schools included. There should be a focus on consensus building rather than narrow political control. Employed executive staff should have an explicit duty to give impartial technical and policy advice in public, to promote a strong culture of independent professional integrity.

 

Their functions should include everything necessary to lead and manage the system e.g. strategic planning to secure the supply of school places, responding to concerns about improving community integration, home to school transport, support for vulnerable pupils and facilitating local partnerships with, universities, businesses, faith communities and the voluntary sector.

Alan Parker

May 2017