There are currently a number of generalisations made about the relationship between local authorities and schools: that they are ineffective in supporting school improvement and that academies have nothing to do with the local authority and are the better for it.
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Research published by the Association of Directors of Children’s Services challenges both assumptions.
The research demonstrates that 20% of local authorities so effectively support schools that more than three quarters of their schools are good or better and less than 1% are causing concern. These local authorities closely monitor schools’ performance through accessing data and soft intelligence; robustly challenge school leaders; and, where necessary, act to remove those who are barriers to improvement.
Two things struck me when reading these findings. Firstly the importance of using all the information available to inform work with schools – not only exam results, but information about attendance and exclusions, staff vacancies and sickness, parental complaints and local knowledge from councillors - and secondly that these authorities do not rely on statutory powers, such as warning notices, as the process is too cumbersome. The most successful authorities use their moral leadership to challenge and support schools long before the threshold for statutory intervention is met.
This contrasts with the accountability framework for converter academies based on the monitoring of inspection and examination results. Neither central nor local government automatically have access to a range of useful information, nor the authority to act before decline has set in. While academies that are part of chains are monitored and challenged by the relevant umbrella body, stand-alone converter academies have no such safety net. The moves towards a self-improving school system are not yet mature enough to take the necessary action to remove and replace heads and governors where leadership is inadequate.
This brings me to the second myth, that converter academies are uniformly opposed to the involvement of the local authority in the school improvement system. Many converter academies are voluntarily participating in the local authority-brokered arrangements for school improvement in their area. While valuing the independence academy status brings, heads of these schools recognise the risks that isolation poses. The risks include decline going unchallenged, national policy changes going unnoticed and opportunities to share skills and resources being missed. The links between these schools and the rest of the system rely on governors and heads recognising the value of such links and the offer from the local authority adding real value.
For many local authorities, it is a moral imperative to continue to monitor school performance. The guidance on the statutory role of the DCS and lead member is clear: we retain responsibility for supporting educational excellence, particularly for the most vulnerable children. We will not wait for the secretary of state to resolve the current ambiguity about what that responsibility means in practice in academies. We will not shirk from using all the information at our disposal to challenge academy heads on their performance, nor from reporting concerns to Ofsted. We will build partnerships that allow us access to the crucial information to support that challenge process. And finally we will continue to encourage the secretary of state to give maintained schools and academies a level playing field, in terms of accountability, of funding and of opportunities to participate in the self-improving school system, to ensure that no matter what type of school, every child can enjoy the best education on offer.
Matt Dunkley, immediate past president, Association of Directors of Children’s Services