In 2007, when the previous government introduced trust schools and told local authorities to reduce or withdraw their ‘delivery’ role in schools, I remember telling a group of council officers that the age old council joke had changed from ‘who cut your hair?’ to ‘who commissioned your haircut?’. It now appears even local authorities’ commissioning role for schools is under threat.
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Despite the undoubted contribution that many councils have played in transforming many schools, the ‘mobilising myth’ that local authorities can only hinder school improvement may become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as reduced budgets and uncertainty about current and future functions damage capacities and competencies. To rehash an old Audit Commission quote, you’ve lost an empire, should you bother to find a role?
My short answer is yes. In the same way that schools need to make radical uses of their existing freedoms to build genuine autonomy, local authorities need to make better use of their existing authority – be it legislative, regulatory or moral - to improve outcomes for all children. The Association of Directors of Children’s Services’ recent report points helpfully to a ‘nudging’ role for councils. As new freedoms emerge for schools, especially around curriculum development, they may look to local authorities for different kinds of support (and the RSA’s Area Based Curriculum, tested in Manchester and Peterborough and ready for adaptation elsewhere, might have something to offer here).
The RSA, in partnership with the Pearson Centre for Policy Learning, has recently launched an eight-month ‘speed commission’ to examine the implications of the ‘mass academisation’ of state schools and the impact this might have on educational outcomes. We will also be publishing a pamphlet in June that explores the potential role of a ‘middle tier’ in education.
The RSA has a personal interest in these debates. As an existing sponsor of one academy and possible sponsor of more in a slowly growing “family of schools”, one of our key principles is to work for the educational interests of all children in the area: taking no actions that are detrimental to other schools. This is probably impossible without a serious, sustained partnership with the relevant local authority.
Without wishing to pre-empt the findings of the commission, my current advice for councils would be to embrace academisation. This does not necessarily mean encouraging all schools to be academies (as the Isle of Wight has done), but it requires focusing energies on building new relationships with those schools which are taking this route, whether willingly or forced. With council’s democratic mandate, they should be ensuring that free schools and other academies do not use their freedoms to harm others; where appropriate, helping a school find a provider with an area’s interests in mind, rather than only the particular pupils at that particular school. Bribing or blackmailing schools to stay formally in the local authority family will probably be counterproductive, and possibly prevent more informal but effective relationships from emerging. Hackney’s Learning Trust has managed this process highly effectively, and the existing partnerships between many authorities and their further education colleges may also provide useful role models.
I will also suggest three things that local authorities shouldn’t do. First, don’t create new accountability and performance measures for schools that simply aim to justify your existence – there is already enough data in the system that is in desperate need of more intelligent application.
Second, don’t neglect even the most obtrusive academies. In the near future, some schools may realise that total independence comes with pitfalls, or that relationships with their academy provider has become excessively autocratic or bureaucratic – that they have nothing to lose but their chains. At this point, councils will have a duty of care to those schools and young people that should override any schadenfreude.
And finally, don’t give up on the education of the most vulnerable children in your area, those ‘hard to place’ pupils whom schools are often incentivised to neglect. These are the young people who, more than anyone, need local authorities to be their ‘champions’ in a diverse, competitive education system. Although the phrase may now be politically redundant, it may ultimately only be local authorities who can ensure that every child really matters.
Joe Hallgarten is director of education for the RSA