As chief executive of a relatively large and growing multi academy trust (MAT), I was both heartened and dismayed by Su Turner’s piece in LGC’s 8 October edition (‘Councillors must maintain oversight of academies’).
Ms Turner is right to highlight schools as being at the ‘heart of our communities’ but long before the advent of academies, a disturbing distance has prevailed between headteachers’ offices and town halls. She is right to pose the question ‘how well do councillors really know the schools in their patch?’ The answer, sadly, is ‘not very well at all’ but that is not fault of the increasing numbers of academies.
As a former local authority director of children’s services, I always championed the positive engagement of councillors with schools, if only because of their democratic mandate for all children and young people regardless of the school they attend. In my current role, responsible for one of the fastest growing MATs in the south east, I enjoy regular opportunities to meet the cabinet member for education. We take every opportunity to work collaboratively with local authority officers, particularly given a council’s residual statutory responsibilities, but essentially because it helps us all keep things good or better for children.
However, barring a few exceptions, ward councillors more generally have much to answer for in relation to any proactive effort to engage with, understand and value the ‘heart of the community’ position of schools. Indeed, the question is not whether councillors in general know schools in their patch, but rather, have they ever known the schools in their patch?
Whatever we think of academies, they are part of a programme borne out of a failure of councils, and therefore councillors, to respond with sufficient urgency to long standing, deep-rooted and systemic poor performance in far too many schools.
I felt privileged, as a director of children’s services, to preside over a city school system that went from being the worst in the country to the middle of the council league table. That took five years and the active support of a few exceptional councillors of all political persuasions. How much more might have been achieved with a similar level of ownership across the board?
Ms Turner is to be commended for reminding all of us with the educational futures of children in our hands that whatever the structural vagaries of our educational system, we all, and most of all councillors, have a duty to stay engaged with all schools. The law provides for it, good practice requires it but, most importantly, the life chances of virtually every child and young person depends on it.
Clive Webster, chief executive, Kent Catholic Schools’ Partnership