Why should local authorities bother?

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As more and more schools convert and join academy chains, John Till discusses the mixed messages that local authorities are receiving about their future role.

I am confused. Increasingly confused. For many years we have been told that the shortcomings of the English education system could be attributed in large part to local education authority “control”. I never understood why this should be because it did not tally with my experience, but it was repeated so often that, like propaganda, it has come to be accepted as fact (by some). 

The solution, we were told, was to devolve management to individual schools, publish examination results, allow parents to choose schools, allocate funds according to the number of children on roll, and the competition for pupils would push up standards to meet parental expectations. 

Good schools would expand; poor schools would be forced to close. Parents would be happy; employers would be satisfied. It seemed so clear and so simple. Those of us who wondered if it was too simple were dismissed as relics of a complacent past. After all, independent schools flourished without interfering and tiresome local education authorities, so why not state schools too?

It should have come as a surprise, therefore, to see how many of the new academies, freed at last from any lingering remnants of local authority control, are joining academy chains and trusts, so sacrificing some of their independence. In a radio broadcast on academies, it was interesting to hear a headteacher explain why she had decided to do so. With the support of a trust she had transformed the fortunes of a struggling academy. She felt that the expertise a trust or chain could offer was invaluable support for an academy and for a headteacher.

In a previous post this headteacher had turned round a failing local authority maintained school. Asked how she had managed to do this, she praised the support she had received from the maintaining local authority. Why, then, wondered the interviewer, become an academy? Because, came the response, local authorities were no longer able to offer support of the quality required. It seems that local authority involvement in the education service is on the way out. But wait. The chief inspector sees it differently. Councils that are failing to raise schools’ standards are to face inspection by Ofsted, which will evaluate how effectively they are discharging their school improvement functions. 

This raises some interesting questions. If the desired outcome is that all schools become academies outside the jurisdiction of local authorities, why should local councillors concern themselves with what they do? Or employ staff for that purpose?

The days when chairs of education committees were notable figures in their local communities and powers in the local government land have long gone, along with their committees. And why, if headteachers, not town hall bureaucrats, know what is best for their schools (as we have been told repeatedly), do local authorities need to be involved? And who in a local authority is actually going to do the work expected by Ofsted?

Who is going to want to work for organisations which politicians and successive governments have sought to emasculate? Or will this be another function outsourced to a private company? And was not the responsibility for challenging the management of a school supposed to lie with the governing body?

Are we reinventing the wheel? And are we doing so without an awareness and proper understanding of the past? I wonder if we shall ever hear a politician (or the chief inspector) acknowledge that the assumptions on which past “reforms” have been based may have been flawed and what is suggested now seems to contradict the rhetoric of the last three decades.

And will we ever be told what it is that headteachers can do now that they could not do when schools were “controlled” by local education authorities?


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