With a new education secretary comes the potential for a further shift in policy in the drive to improve education standards.
While we wait to see whether Justine Greening’s vision differs from her predecessors, the questions about councillors’ role in education and clarity of accountability continue.
In the government’s recent white paper, democratic overview and scrutiny of schools is lacking to say the least. As the local authority’s role in education diminishes so, naturally, does the overview and scrutiny which came with it. Coincidentally (maybe) we have recently seen an upsurge in media reports of academy heads’ huge salaries and other misdemeanors, which has led to the idea that some independent scrutiny might be needed. Yes, I know; how we laughed.
The Centre for Public Scrutiny has been working to improve school governance for some time, recognising that all parts of a complex system need to work together to improve outcomes. Our belief is that by potentially reducing the role of local councillor to ‘speech day prize-giver’ reduces local accountability and excludes the value that local democratic involvement brings.
This view and the recognition that good governance relies on more than a few structural changes is gaining support and traction with colleagues in the DfE and other experts and partners. Over recent months we have held a number of debates with experts, partners and colleagues including the national schools commissioner to identify what would help to navigate the waters ahead.
There are misconceptions around roles and responsibilities of existing and new players. There is potential to work with local councillors and regional schools commissioner in particular, to get a better understanding of each other’s worlds. This could be extended to others in the system, including Ofsted.
There is also a gap in how new partnerships and organisations work together locally and with regional and national partners. This takes time but there is a risk that good local community links via councillors and others are not seen as valuable in the new system. Locally there will be new education forums being created but there is much more that can be done.
The future role of overview and scrutiny must be part of this debate. This scrutiny role becomes more, not less, important as schools become more autonomous. We are looking into whether the role and powers of council scrutiny need to strengthened in this area (possibly along similar lines to health scrutiny) or if there are other less formal ways to give scrutiny the incentive and teeth to provide the challenge and overview needed.
Positively, everyone is talking but we also need to quickly find practical ways to share learning and provide useful resources. Time is of the essence if improving children’s outcomes is what drives us all.
Jacqui McKinlay, chief executive, the Centre for Public Scrutiny