Call for new local commissioners to support school improvement

Trade unions
An army of locally accountable schools commissioners should be appointed to support school improvement across England, a think-tank has recommended.

A report from IPPR says that as increasing number of schools take up academy status there is less access to networks of support and “a lack of local oversight of school performance”.

It says that this “fragmentation” of the school system has led to “inadequate school place planning and a lack of robust and transparent quality assurance for new school providers”.

It suggests that the local commissioners could tackle this by working across city or county areas and should be appointed by partnerships of local authorities.

The government already has eight regional school commissioners who oversee the academies programme, but the report argues that these do not have a remit for maintained schools and have no role in school improvement unless an academy is thought to be “failing”.

It adds: “The (regional) commissioners will lack the capacity to undertake robust performance monitoring and data analysis.”

The report, which was funded by the NASUWT, continues: “A new middle tier is required if we are to build a self-improving school system. This paper recommends the creation of locally accountable school commissioners, based on city-regional or county-regional areas.

“Local authorities should continue to be responsible for championing the concerns of local parents, place-planning and special needs provision, and should additionally administer local school admissions. The school commissioner would be responsible for functions that need to be conducted at a scale larger than the local authority area, but which it would not make sense to house in the Department for Education.”

The report says that local school commissioners should be charged with a number of duties. They include:

  • Running competitions for new school providers.

  • Brokering a change of providers if a school fails.

  • Having the power to force schools to expand to meet local demand.

  • Tracking performance and “gathering local intelligence in order to identify and challenge schools that need to improve”.

The report adds: “By virtue of being based at the level of the city-region or county-region, commissioners would operate at the right level to combine local knowledge with the scale needed to develop London Challenge-style collaboration. At this level they will also be able to tie their decisions in to the sub-regional agenda, meaning that they would be joined up with decisions about early years, skills, post-16 education and transport.”

The report was launched at a fringe event during the recent Conservative Party Conference, which was attended by school reform minister Nick Gibb.

Dr Patrick Roach, deputy general secretary of the NASUWT, said: “As the number and diversity of providers in education is unlikely to decrease, the government must face up to the implications of a system which has the potential to become highly fragmented and recognise that the challenge of ensuring equity for all children and young people will be greater and require new arrangements for system governance.

“Ministers will need to address the need for better strategic oversight and leverage in the system to ensure it operates in the public interest, is democratically accountable, encourages and promotes genuine teacher autonomy, secures entitlement for all learners, and achieves an end to the postcode lottery in education.”

Rick Muir, associate director for public service reform at IPPR and one of the report’s authors, added: “The model we are proposing here would, we think, provide a common framework for all schools, whether academies, free schools or maintained schools, to be part of the same framework of accountability and school improvement.

“We think it would enable a local, holistic view of the whole school system in an area. It would bring about much great strategic oversight of the post-16 level and link it to the economic development agenda. It would enable local authorities to keep playing their role, including in place planning and special educational needs.”

He added: “We think it would reintroduce some form of local voice and local oversight into the school system.”

Mr Gibb said: “The essence of our reforms is to create a school-led education system. It is all about giving professionals the autonomy to run their schools, but within a framework of increased accountability.

“Autonomy doesn’t mean that headteachers can run their school free from scrutiny or demanding standards, it means academies can be run without having to second-guess advice or interference from local authorities.”