- For over a century, local authorities (LAs) have played a very significant role in supporting schools. It is not possible for over 24,000 schools to be run directly by central Government. However, even though local authorities have largely worked well as a middle tier, Government policy, particularly the promotion of academies and free schools, increasingly attempts to circumvent them.
- The Government’s current preferred model for a middle tier seems to consist of academy chains and Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs). 1 Both academy chains and RSCs are unaccountable to local communities and unable to provide much of the support which schools require.
- In 2013, the Academies Commission published. This stated: “The Commission argues that instead of a ‘middle tier’, the arguments for which are unconvincing, local authorities should take the lead responsibility for commissioning sufficient school places and should also undertake a stronger role as champions for local standards. That is, they should have a clear role in securing the sufficiency and quality of educational provision, ensuring that the interests of children and young people in their area are met”.2.
- The NUT also believes that LAs are best placed to act as education’s middle tier. LAs are elected by local communities and accountable to them and they have decades of experience of coordinating education provision and supporting school improvement.
- There are huge variations between local authorities (LAs). Ask local schools what they think about the support they receive from their council and there will probably be a wide range of responses. Some may rate it good; others may be less positive; still more may identify both strengths and weaknesses. Education funding has been greatly reduced in recent years, which has had a significant impact. Where some councils are not performing well as they could, the best solution would be to ensure that they do so rather than creating a whole new system.
- Some local authorities provide models for how others could operate. For example, the 2013 report, Transforming Education for All: The Tower Hamlets Story shows what a strong LA can do for schools. The authors, Professor David Woods, Professor Chris Husbands and Dr Chris Brown, identified seven key success factors which drove the London borough’s transformation. These were: Ambitious leadership at all levels; very effective school improvement; high quality teaching and learning; effective spending; external, integrated services; community development and partnerships; and a resilient approach to external government policies and pressure.3
- LAs help to ensure fair access to schools, particularly for vulnerable children such as those with SEN. They coordinate school admissions and they support schools to cooperate to prevent pupil exclusions through behaviour partnerships and ‘managed moves’ between schools – approaches which have been shown to be highly effective.
- LAs also provide schools with a safety net when they experience challenging issues by providing advice and access to specialist staff, for example, around issues to do with asbestos, school budgets, redundancies, financial management, staff health, disability access or challenging parents. LAs also support schools to cope with unforeseen emergency situations such as fires, floods, pupil accidents or major crimes.
- In addition, LAs provide a huge range of services to schools at an economy of scale that it is not possible for a school on its own to achieve. These include special educational needs (SEN) services, occupational health, payroll, pensions, library, inter-faith, music and outdoor education, governor support, curriculum advice, education welfare and so on.
- Furthermore, LAs have developed expertise in supporting schools based on detailed local knowledge. For example, the local area may be home to significant numbers of children from a particular ethnic group, speaking a particular home language, or from travelling communities. The LA may have developed specialist teams to support these groups. Many LA staff join council education teams having taught in local schools and have direct experience of the local context.
- To carry out their important functions, LAs need a secure and adequate funding stream, an agreed remit and Government and public recognition and support for the important contribution they make to education.
- LAs are accountable. They provide an important democratic mechanism if parents experience a problem that they are unable to resolve at school level.
- In contrast, stand-alone academies, free schools and academy chains, overseen by central Government (and their agencies such as the Education Funding Agency and Regional Schools Commissioners), lack transparency and are undemocratic. Many chains operate on a national, not a local level. They are accountable only to the Secretary of State for Education through a legal document known as a funding agreement not to parents or local communities.
1.See the Edufact on Regional Schools Commissioners here.
2. P87 of ‘Unleashing greatness’ - www.thersa.org/globalassets/pdfs/reports/unleashing-greatness.pdf
3. See the full report here: http://eprints.ioe.ac.uk/18172/1/Transforming_Education_final.pdf or a
summary at: https://ioelondonblog.wordpress.com/2014/01/15/the-transformation-of-tower-hamlet