Opinion: Ever greater centralisation is not the answer for failing schools

“Troubleshooters are needed to spot failing academy schools around the country and sack incompetent headteachers, the new chief education inspector has said.” So reported the Daily Telegraph on 28 December. The article continued:

Sir Michael Wilshaw said ministers must set up regional early warning systems because by the time his Ofsted inspectors discover an institution is in trouble, it is too late.

As more and more secondary schools gain independence from town halls and become academies, it will also be difficult for the Department of Education to focus on improving individual schools.

Sir Michael said that to maintain standards, dozens of local commissioners should be employed across England who could decide whether to merge failing academies or replace their head teachers or governing bodies.

It is hardly surprising that the Local Government Association gave these happy thoughts a political raspberry. Leaving aside the normal absurd language about schools gaining “independence from town halls”, the interview shows up the nonsense of the Government’s stance on education: in the year in which councils got back some powers under the Localism Act, the agenda for schools is one of ever greater centralisation.

If the Department for Education had been able even for a few minutes to get over its normal hatred of councils, they would have recognised that the key role for what we used to all local education authorities is to support schools and to act early, and discreetly, when a school begins to fail.

It has long been obvious that the key factor in any school is the Head: school governors are largely irrelevant, as are tweaks to the national curriculum. But if a Head is not coping the performance of the school will swiftly decline.

As legislation currently stands after the hasty enactments in the first few months of the current government, councils still have a role in schools which are neither academies nor free schools. They can intervene when a head is underperforming, either to provide management support or in extreme cases to help move on a Head who is clearly never going to make the grade – although the Government is rapidly cutting the resources for these functions.

These powers do not exist for academies. So what happens if an academy begins to totter? Tory thinking is that academies won’t totter because of the wonderful freedoms they have been granted. But the reality is different. A change of status alters remarkably little: a weak head does not suddenly, in the absence of the support network offered by a local authority, become a human dynamo.

Currently, the first sign of trouble will come when the Ofsted reports start to show the school beginning to stumble. But by then it may be too late for those whose education has begun to suffer.

We can thank the Sir Michael for pointing out the silliness of the government position. But his centralising solution is wide of the mark.

Sometimes, when there is an elephant in the room, it pays to say so.

* Chris White is a Hertfordshire County Councillor and Deputy Leader (Policy) of the Liberal Democrat Group at the Local Government Association

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13 Comments

  • I agree with Dane – get rid of the charitable status too while you are at it. If the Establishment actually used the State system they might get their act together and make it work.

  • Tony Dawson 2nd Jan '12 - 11:21am

    ““Troubleshooters are needed to spot failing academy schools around the country and sack incompetent headteachers, the new chief education inspector has said.””

    Birkdale High School (11-16, boys), Southport, went ‘Academy’ in the summer and is now reported widely as being in ‘Special Measures’.

  • Chris Nicholson 2nd Jan '12 - 12:01pm

    Chris White is right that the solution being suggested, of greater centralisation, is not ideal. But I think we also have to question whether all local authorities are up to the task.
    Some sort of intermediate level between Whitehall and the individual academy is required to monitor and deal with underperformance. Where there are chains of academies this might be provided by the ‘parent sponsor’ – though this has the disadvantage of lack of democratic accountability. Whilst some of the larger education authorities eg Kent may well be up to the task, are the smaller ones eg some of the London Boroughs?
    Initiatives under the last government, such as London Challenge, which operated at a pan London level, had a discernible impact in turning around the performance of London schools so that they now out-perform those in the rest of the country, as shown by Gill Wyness’s recent CentreForum paper http://www.centreforum.org/assets/pubs/london-schooling.pdf
    Why don’t groups of local authorities (eg based on city regions) or at a London wide level, come forward with their own proposals as to how this monitoring and intervention should occur? (apologies if they have done but Chris White’s post does not mention it).

  • Evan Harris 2nd Jan '12 - 9:42pm

    Chris Nicholson says “Chris White is right that the solution being suggested, of greater centralisation, is not ideal. But I think we also have to question whether all local authorities are up to the task.”

    The inevitability of some LAS being worse than others and indeed some failing is NOT a basis for centralisation or quangocraisation since on the basis that there will always be some poor performing areas or LAs in every areas of public service, that is an argument against have any localisation or and/or democratic accountability.

    You can – these exist – have inspectorates for local authorities, but we should never defend centralisation or the creation of more local or national quangos to run local services on the basis of “a few bad apples”, like the Tories do.

    Next it’ll be “council tax capping is needed because some council s spend money unwisely”.

  • Old Codger Chris 3rd Jan '12 - 2:50pm

    Taking Chris Nicholson’s point, in my area one reason why schools are falling over each other to become academies is dissatisfaction with the LA. Local schools who have joined a Trust – perhaps because Ofsted only judges them Satisfactory (which isn’t satisfactory of course) – are delighted by the improved support they receive from the Trust compared to the LA.

    I’m afraid inspectorates for LAs don’t solve the problem. I can remember when the Thatcher government introduced the Grant Maintained system – in my area there was the same stampede away from the LA and for the same reason.

  • Chris White 4th Jan '12 - 9:26am

    I sadly have to concede that not all local authorities are up to the task. What has struck me about my own (Hertfordshire – Tory-controlled, but gets this right at least) is the degree to which the schools which are seeking academy status are anxious to preserve their relationship with the local authority. Intervention has been successful. But senior officers acknowledge that some others are hopeless. This is a big challenge for the local government family: to get powers you have to demonstrate credibility. Perhaps an inspection regime for the LAs could solve this – if you get a certain grade you have intervention powers.

  • Chris Nicholson 4th Jan '12 - 8:05pm

    Evan Harris has, I think, misinterpreted what I was advocating. I am not supporting centralisation but as Matthew Green says I do not think many local authorities have the critical mass and expertise to do this properly. What I was suggesting was that local authorities get together with their alternative, bottom-up, solution to this problem, rather than letting Michael Gove impose his, top down, solution. Isn’t that what localism and general powers of competence should be all about?

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