The Liberal Democrat education policy, written before the General Election, detailed a strong strategic role for councils, including commissioning new schools and holding all schools to account whatever their status.
The question now is whether this is more than just a change in the mood music, and whether the Coalition is genuinely up for endorsing local authorities who seek to hold academies to account as part of a strong ‘champion for children’ role. And moreover, whether they will give councils the teeth they need to do it properly.
Who better to rise to this challenge and make the case persuasively to government than London local authorities? Education is one of London’s biggest success stories of the past 10 years. As the recent Centre Forum report London Schooling: Lessons from the capital highlights, pupils of all types perform better in London than in all other regions of the UK. But while there is much to be proud of, not all schools are performing well and there is a very real need to continue to raise standards to ensure that every child in the capital has access to a high quality education.
London is also at the vanguard for the drive for school autonomy begun by Lord Andrew Adonis and accelerated by Michael Gove. It has the highest number of free schools in the country and if schools continue to convert to academy status at the current rate, then all secondary schools in London will be academies by March 2014 and all primaries by August 2022. As schools take the lead in self-improvement, London local authorities are rethinking how they can best add value by holding autonomous schools to account and acting as champions for children.
In developing its own proposals no one should be in any doubt about the broad agreement across all London local authorities and political groups that good education is key corporate priority. And while it is probably true to say that boroughs are finding their way in this new role, all want to have (and in almost all cases do have) is a close and positive relationship of mutual respect with all schools in their area regardless of their status.
London Councils have developed some detailed ideas about the key roles for local authorities and have identified where additional powers are necessary to undertake them in the increasingly more diverse and autonomous school system:
Enabling continued school improvement: facilitating excellent partnerships of schools which focus on the improvement needs of local schools and seeking powers (such as issuing warning notices to academies) so they can act when serious issues emerge, whatever the type of school.
Meeting the growing demand for school places: seeking additional capital funds; sharing and promoting innovative practice; working proactively with free schools on sites, development costs and parental demand and seeking agreement from government to having early access to information and engagement with potential new providers.
Making the education system more accessible to parents and local communities: a London-wide information hub for parents; holding all schools to account locally, including seeking automatic sharing of data by academies and powers to conduct a financial audit of academies where there were concerns about value for money.
Increasing engagement of community governors in all schools: recruiting local authority governors more widely from the local community; offering comprehensive training and support, and seeking a change in the rules so that every state funded school, including academies, should have at least one governor appointed by the local authority on behalf of the wider community.
Supporting vulnerable children to achieve positive outcomes: delivering a broad range of statutory children’s services; and seeking powers to require academies to admit a hard-to-place pupil on the recommendation of an independent local panel, as they currently do for maintained schools.
* James Kempton is former Leader of Islington Council and author of a report for London Councils London local authority role in education (June 2012). The future relationship between local authorities and schools will be a session at the free London Summit on November 17th #lcsummit