Over the past fifteen years local councils have helped drive dramatic improvements in schools’ performance. They have supported parents, teachers and school governors to achieve more, boosted by unprecedented investment in schools by the previous Labour government. The number of failing schools has fallen dramatically while those rated outstanding has soared. We cannot be complacent about this, there’s still more to do, but it’s clear that local government plays a key role.
Since the General Election, the Tory-led Government has set out to smash up the education system, breaking the ties between schools and local councils, and seeking instead to run every school from Whitehall. With over 20,000 schools they’ve now realised they are too remote and don’t have enough staff to support and monitor all of them. So they’ve come up with a new idea – a ‘middle tier’ of education commissioners as an intermediate point between Whitehall and individual schools. Well they’ve clearly been somewhere else for the past few decades, but they’ll be surprised to learn that’s exactly the role local councils have already been playing.
Councils drove improvement by doing precisely the things now proposed for education commissioners. Local government is close enough to schools to spot problems early on and intervene before they escalate. It regulates fair access and plans investment in new schools for growing populations. It ensures that parents and the wider local community have a voice. It forms federations of schools so better performing schools can support weaker schools to improve. It replaces failing heads and governing bodies, and provides strategic services including IT, financial systems and HR as well as guidance on national policy.
The Government wants schools, unhooked from local councils, to join national chains of academies. These could certainly provide some support services, and non-chain schools can purchase them from whoever they like. But none of this provides the local perspective, or local accountability, that is essential to making education work for the different communities it serves. A local perspective is critical when it comes to making sure there are enough school places available in the right places for every child that needs one. Critically, neither academy chains nor education commissioners divorced from the rest of local council services can deliver the wider children’s services agenda. That includes identifying children at risk of abuse and bringing in social services to support them and their families, helping young offenders get their lives back on track, and offering appropriate education to children with physical and mental disabilities. All of those vital services work better if they are run as closely as possible to schools.
Schools don’t educate children in isolation from other factors that affect their ability to learn. Some students perform poorly at school because they drift into crime and anti-social behaviour, some come from dysfunctional families, some children’s concentration is impaired by poor nutrition, or they may live in substandard or overcrowded homes. Local government may not directly control all these things, but we can influence all the services that tackle them and that puts councils in the best position to bring them together to improve poor performance at school.
Councils do not need to take back control of free schools and independent academies in order to act as the ‘middle tier’. The world’s moved on, and school provision has become more pluralistic. Innovation is a good thing, as long as we resist the more outlandish Government attempts to let whacky creationists or unqualified teachers get their hands on our children. Local authorities already work alongside a growing range of reputable school providers, although legislation is required to ensure we have the powers to intervene when things go wrong. But because we need local authorities to play a different role from the past doesn’t mean we should deny them any role in the future. It makes no sense to close off the chance of bringing different local services together in pursuit of higher standards.
The creation of local education commissioners, like local police commissioners or supremoes in other public services, simply fragments the ability of local communities to tie up resources in ways that meet local needs. It is just another vanity project from Government ministers who love to lord it over local communities, throwing out gimmicks they can point to as their legacy. But the only legacy of this particular gimmick will be the further fragmentation of local government, a reduction in our ability to address the many and complex issues that hold some schools back, and it’ll cost us an extra £15m at a time of cut-backs in frontline services.
Labour councils today are shaping a new role for local government that’s more open, locally accountable and pluralistic than in the past. We can do that by joining up services in ways that make more sense to the people who use them, rather than delivering each service as if the others didn’t exist. Local government is the only tier of government that can bring things together in this way. We have outgrown the narrow mentality that sees our communities only through the narrow prism of a single-service provider. Imposing education commissioners takes us in the wrong direction. We don’t need to invent a new ‘middle tier’ between national government and local schools. It already exists, and it’s called local government.