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CMRE Forum roundtable, 24th January 2017

‘The future role of local government in education’

The role of local authorities with respect to education has been changing for many years, but with the acceleration and proportion of schools taking Academy status over the last few years; significant encroachments on their remit arising from the expansion of the Regional School Commissioner (RSC) role; and some authorities beginning to look unviable, the government has concluded that now is the right time to re-think their role and responsibilities. 

Recently, with support from event partners FASNA, we hosted Leora Cruddas, Director of Policy and Public Relations for the ASCL, and a number of sector stakeholders, for a roundtable to discuss a new role for local authorities beyond standards and intervention.

Background and case for reform

The essence of local authorities’ statutory responsibility in education is to ensure that all children in their area have a place at a good school – a definition which encompasses place-planning and admissions, school improvement, and a regulatory and oversight function as well. Historically, this conflation of roles has led to multiple conflicts of interest.

Legislation introduced from 2010 in relation to the expansion of the academy programme has given rise to a situation in which there is a marked lack of clarity about where LAs’ responsibilities begin and end. As a result, a number of national, regional and local bodies have begun to step into each other territories. In addition to the LA inspection and improvement functions, Ofsted, for example, has hitherto seen itself as an improvement agency, leaving itself in practice in the dubious position of inspecting its own work. The RSC function, meanwhile, has grown exponentially, encroaching on what traditionally has been Ofsted’s brief, and sowing confusion among school leaders by coming to quite different judgements.

Rearrangement and reassignment of responsibilities among agencies

Arrangements for scrutiny, support, and intervention could be made more efficient if we were clearer about the functions of these different bodies.

The responsibility for provision should reside squarely with schools. This should not be part of the local authority brief.

Ofsted should be given full responsibility for monitoring and inspecting schools. It is Ofsted’s job to hold schools to public account for the standard of their provision and identify accurately areas in need of improvement; when successful schools could be doing even better; and when failure has become systemic and irreversible without intervention.

It is the job of the Office of the Schools Commissioner (OSC) to intervene, on the basis of Ofsted’s judgements, when new governance and leadership is needed to galvanise improvement in a school or area. This should apply for all schools, irrespective of Academy status. The Office exists to anticipate need and shape the landscape of future provision. Accordingly, it should also have full responsibility for place-planning, including identifying where and procuring when new schools are needed.

It follows that the statutory role of the Director of Children’s Services (DCS) and Lead Member for Children’s Services (LMCS) can be removed in relation to planning and maintaining schools, standards and intervention.

Re-visioning the local authority role in education

In education, local government should re-position itself as an insurer of equity. Key elements of this role would be to build social and economic capital, foster community, and thereby support social mobility. This gives a rationale for them retaining administration of the preference system; convening forums to help schools identify possible matches with potential academy sponsors and school improvement providers; providing assistance with school bussing; supporting teacher supply through housing policy; networking provision of work experience and careers guidance.

Other than administration of the preference system, the basis of this role should be non-statutory. LAs should be held to account contractually by RSCs for the provision of accurate demographic data; by head-teachers, for the provision of support services; and democratically, for the impact of their activities generally as insurers of equity. In keeping with the reduction of LAs’ statutory responsibilities, Schools Forums should be disbanded and replaced with thinned-down advisory bodies, informing LAs convening and infrastructure-building activities.

Re-conceptualisation of the OSC/RSC role

To compensate for this statutory change, and in the interests of greater accountability and transparency, the OSC and RSC roles need to be re-conceptualised.

With the ASCL and FASNA, CMRE recommends that regional education jurisdictions should be created, with commissioners responsible for all schools within their jurisdictions. These should have governing boards constituted by elected head-teachers and a limited number of other appointed positions.

Regional education commissioners should be appointed to replace RSCs, by Orders in Council, on the recommendation of the regional education jurisdiction’s governing board. Each education commissioner would thus be an office holder under the Crown, accountable to Parliament and technically independent of the Department for Education and the Secretary of State. The OSC should be re-classified as a non-ministerial department.

A new operational model for establishing new schools and arranging transfers

In keeping with these changes, CMRE believes the model on which School Commissioners establish new schools and arrange transfers needs to change.

The essentially network-based nature of brokering has negative consequences for competition, and more profoundly runs the risk of poor Sponsor fit. Poor recruitment and deployment of Sponsors/MATs is an overlooked potential factor in the unacceptable levels of variance historically seen in the performance of academies.

This system should be replaced by an open tendering framework for deciding which Sponsors/MATs, and/or other kinds of providers (including privatised local authority education services), should take-over existing schools – or indeed introduce new provision. Ofsted reports should inform the terms of the tender, which in the event of new governance and leadership being immediately required, should be run by an Commissioner-appointed ‘School Administrator’.

The tender should allow for flexibility on price to provide appropriate incentives to providers where pupils have, or are likely to have, complex needs. Accordingly innovative additional performance metrics should be required to those operating on all schools to measure impact where an additional premium is proposed.

The terms of funding agreements, and winning bid, should be subject to Secretary of State due diligence and approval. 

This model would generate better matching between schools in need of takeover (and new school proposals) to Sponsors/MATs.

The EFA should retain its funding function, but its financial regulatory function should be transferred to Ofsted, which would monitor compliance with the terms of funding agreements in addition to the application of its standard inspection criteria.

Democratic accountability

In addition to the terms of the tender being public and the winning bid being open to scrutiny, each regional education commissioner would be subject to the oversight of his/her governing body, and would be required to publish an annual report. In that they hold public office, they would be publicly accountable in the usual ways.

This being so, and in view of the ground-up nature of tender and bid development on the model proposed, CMRE believes there would not be a need for LA education scrutiny committees with powers of referral to the SoS to call in regional education commissioner decisions, as advanced by the ASCL.

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