The recent action research report on the role of local authorities in education made a recommendation that councils need “to further develop the scrutiny role of councillors so this becomes a powerful route for championing and advocating on behalf of children and young people”.
With the rapid advancement of the government’s academy programme, many local authorities have been grappling with the conundrum of how to ensure that when academies are “freed from local authority control” they can still be accountable to the communities they serve.
In particular, how can local authorities – which are often the first port of call for concerned parents – secure a meaningful role in relation to schools in their area which are academies?
This is an issue which we faced on the Isle of Wight long before the coalition government came into being with their redoubling of Labour’s focus on academies.
In 2008, we embarked on a journey of schools reorganisation, moving from a structure with middle schools to the traditional primary-secondary model. We used this opportunity to fundamentally review how education was provided on the island.
Rather than continue to run the schools ourselves, we used the 2006 Education and Inspections Act to run a competition for the provision of secondary (11-19) education on five sites. As part of the competition process we made clear our requirement that scrutiny of each provider’s performance would be undertaken.
As a result, we became the first local authority area in the country to have all of its secondary schools as trust, voluntary aided or academy institutions – in other words, non-maintained by the local authority.
Each provider agreed, through a Memorandum of Understanding, to provide the council with a range of data (e.g. performance predictions, pupils’ attendance, exclusions, looked-after children, special educational needs). Pleasingly, the denominational aided secondary school (joint Anglican/Catholic) agreed to follow the same arrangement, so we now have it in place for all six secondary schools.
The MoU also specified that the provider would present to the children and young people scrutiny panel (in public) at least once a year on their progress. At meetings in March and May 2012 the providers made presentations on their first year so far, drawing on the data sets which we required of them.
As well as questions from councillors there was opportunity for members of the Isle of Wight Youth Council (who attend the schools) to ask questions. The providers and the headteachers faced tough questioning from the panel about their targets and performance, leading to a far greater level of scrutiny taking place than their predecessor local authority schools were ever subjected to.
This will now be followed by a special meeting of the panel later in the year (again held in public) to consider the 2012 results and other relevant data. This is expected to become an annual event with providers being asked to attend other meetings of the panel should particular issues be identified.
It is our view that if local authorities are prepared to relinquish their provider role and move into commissioning mode, they can help shape the environment in which new academies are established – as we have done.
A constructive and effective working relationship between a local authority and academy providers is in the best interests of young people and the local community. By stepping back from direct involvement in these schools, we are now better placed to hold them to account for their performance, not least through the scrutiny process.
I am not saying that our model can be easily translated to other local authority areas, as the circumstances of academies being established elsewhere may not be as straightforward as ours. Nevertheless, the opportunity exists for local authorities to form strong and constructive relationships with local academies and their providers.
Given that the academies are publicly funded and therefore should be accountable for their performance, they should have nothing to hide in coming before a publicly-held scrutiny meeting of the local authority.
David Pugh (Con) is leader of the Isle of Wight Council and a member of the Department for Education’s ministerial advisory group on the role of local authorities in education and children’s services