David Laws, the newly appointed schools minister, has given strong signals to councils that he is receptive to the case that they should play a key role in education.
In a fringe debate organised by London Councils at the Liberal Democrat party conference, Mr Laws gave the first signs of ministerial interest in the debate about councils’ role in education, outlining limits to the Department for Education’s capacity and stressing the need for a layer of responsibility between schools and Whitehall.
During the debate Mr Laws warned against a drift towards a centralised education system. He said he was aware of the need for a co-ordinating body to link schools, and that this should not be done by the department.
Discussing interventions in struggling schools, he said: “I don’t think it can be done from Westminster.” He said intervention would be “one hell of a challenge” and that “someone needs to take responsibility for this.” Mr Laws also said Ofsted could not lead on school interventions, and asked the audience how they thought councils could play a bigger role in the field.
He said it was “plainly unrealistic” to expect Whitehall to handle school exclusion policies and school transport.
Mr Laws also said there needed to be another layer of responsibility as well as the DfE, Ofsted and schools, adding that many different organisations could be involved in this.
He also warned that the prospect of autonomy was intimidating for smaller schools.
Derek Osbourne (Lib Dem), leader of Kingston RBC, was on the panel next to Mr Laws during the fringe event. Speaking to LGC afterwards, he said: “I spoke on the panel after David, to outline London Councils’ proposals on the role of local authorities in schools, and to be honest David covered many of the areas I was expecting to have to lobby him on. It was clear that the door is wide open for local authorities to play a positive role in the future of schools.”
He said Mr Laws had said he could see a role for councils in planning for school places, providing school improvement services and holding schools and governing bodies to account.
“As I saw it, he was saying it was logical for councils to be the middle tier in education because of their experience,” he said. “There was no doubt that as more academies and free schools are setting up, Whitehall will start to crack.”