Councils best placed to link schools with national policy
Tuesday, January 31, 2017
With more changes to the structure of the education system in the offing, I've been thinking about what I would do if I were in charge - an idle daydream, of course, but it seemed important to think how I might tackle the wicked issues as well as the more obvious problems, without drifting off into "I told you it would all end in tears" or "It's all been tried before".
Before I give my take on the general characteristics of an education system that genuinely would work for everyone, I'll illustrate changes over the last five years through three examples, two positive and one negative. Michael Gove saw that the Admissions Code was over-complex and very largely incomprehensible to parents (and often, I fear, to education professionals), so he simplified it - though a proper debate with the people who had to make it work would have improved the outcome. He also introduced, in a 2010 white paper, the concept of local authorities being "champions for children and families", which I have always seen as a powerful approach. Unfortunately, he was of the view that this "champion" role required a structural split between local authorities and schools, so he worked energetically towards academisation. The negative, then, is that academisation has failed to lead to the hoped-for improvement in educational outcomes, while leading to many problems.
So, what might a good education system look like? It seems to me that there are functions that need to be carried through at national level. Providing capital funding for new schools, inspecting schools and informing the public about overall standards, and overseeing the examination and assessment system, are three good examples. There are also functions that are best managed by the individual institution, for example: employment and management of staff, delivering community engagement and accountability, managing school buildings, timetabling, and allocating and managing financial resources. Finally, there are functions best managed locally, above the level of the school or academy trust and below the national or regional level, with the local authority acting as the "champion for children and families". Examples include managing a fair school admissions system, knowing how well schools are doing in educating children in the area and ensuring public accountability, managing specialist provision for individuals, and ensuring there are sufficient school places to meet local need.
These functions overlap, of course, and there needs to be a sensible relationship between national, local and school activities. In my utopia there would be a way to secure a consensus or partnership approach to all these issues.
There are also functions that operate best with economies of scale, such as human resources, financial management support and audit, and school improvement. There are more than a few models, often with partnership delivery that might, but equally might not, include a local authority. However, in its role as "champion", a local authority should know, and be accountable to the public for knowing, that these activities are in place and are well managed.
Since I've been involved in education administration, I've been a supporter both of local authorities and of the local management of schools. There needs to be effective public and professional accountability, and I believe strongly that governing bodies ought to be the direct link between communities and schools. As I say, support services need not be provided by the local authority, though local authorities are very often well-placed to deliver services in partnership with schools and academies.
That's my outline thinking on the strategic issues. What's now needed from the Secretary of State is a clear statement that will allow and enable every part of the system to get on with their bit of the job without the excessive degree of policy chopping and changing we have seen in recent years. What we really don't need is a series of quick-fix shop-window changes driven by a perception of what will be popular - like selection - that will distract and divert attention from the real issues.
John Freeman CBE is a former director of children's services and is now a freelance consultant