Schools are at the heart of our communities yet the distance between the head teacher’s office and the town hall seems further apart than ever.
How well do councillors really know the schools in their patch?
The Centre for Public Scrutiny’s Children and Young People programme has asked this question and often the answer is ‘not well enough’. Now is exactly the time for councillors to understand and get to know their local schools. With the government’s ambition to turn all grant-maintained schools into academies, elected officials need to understand that there are next to no formal levers to hold academies to account but councils will continue to have statutory duties associated with how these institutions perform. These include, but are not limited to, promoting academic excellence, protecting vulnerable children and ensuring that there are enough school places locally.
How can these challenges be met if the formal connection between councils and schools has been lost?
Our latest report Your School, Your Community, sets out both the reasons for ward councillors to foster better links with local schools and the practical benefits of these relationships. What better way could there be of understanding what is going on at your local school than meeting the head teacher, the chair of governors or asking to attend a governors’ meeting? In most cases they will open their arms to your interest – and if they don’t, that might give pause for thought too.
A stronger relationship between school leaders and councillors should help the school to understand and influence local decision-making, much of which can affect the way a school operates. It helps the councillor and council to understand how authorities can meet their statutory duties, anticipate future problems and plan ways that schools and councils can work together across a whole area to deliver the best possible outcomes for the community’s young people.
Our project has thrown up countless examples where this relationship has yielded the most startling results, where closer working has helped schools excel where once they were in special measures.
As a school governor, I was startled that during a four-year tenure my ward councillor didn’t once get in touch to find out about the school and what could be done to help it thrive. These are missed opportunities which are easy to put right: a quick call, a short visit, or an exchange of emails could be all that it takes to begin a fruitful relationship which benefits the whole community.
Su Turner, head of Children and Young People Programme, Centre for Public Scrutiny