The academies revolution sweeping England has left many local authorities "shell-shocked", feeling that they no longer have a role in school improvement, according to a new report.
But town halls left "on the back foot" by the coalition's reforms are missing a trick by failing to recognise the opportunities they present, the study commissioned by the Association of Directors of Children's Services (ADCS) argues.
"It is in local authorities' hands whether or not they want to play a lead role in the improvement of all their schools," consultant Jonathan Crossley-Holland writes in The Missing Link: the evolving role of the local authority in school improvement. "In some ways, both local authorities and schools are being given more room than they have been given for a number of years, albeit with far fewer resources, and are being given greater freedom to determine what they do."
A separate ADCS-commissioned report, Schools Causing Concern: a research project, concludes that the growth in chains of schools and school-to-school support does not have the capacity to take over from local authorities (LAs).
Author Debbie Pritchard admits that not all councils have a good record in supporting weak schools. She quotes an anonymous academy chain head, who claims that some authorities are "complicit in disguising poor standards in order to pass inspections, but with no sustainable plan to raise standards".
But, she argues, the best authorities do everything in their power to improve all schools, including academies, and should continue with that work. "The Department for Education cannot manage all schools centrally," her report says. "A mediating layer is needed."
The idea that some kind of "middle tier" is required as more schools become academies is now widely accepted - Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw and even schools minister Nick Gibb have noted the gap. But given that the idea of academies was to bring state schools out of LA control, the notion that LAs should end up filling that gap may seem strange.
Mr Crossley-Holland acknowledges that ministers see town halls as "part of the problem". But he points to the commitment in the government's 2010 schools White Paper to giving LAs a "strong strategic role" that includes developing "their own school improvement strategies to support local schools".
Ms Pritchard agrees, saying: "There is every reason that effective local authorities continue to work with, monitor and challenge all schools ... irrespective of the type."
Sceptics might note that Mr Crossley-Holland led Sheffield City Council's education department for 11 years and Ms Pritchard was a senior Devon County Council education officer for 13 years. But Mr Crossley-Holland insists it is schools that want LAs to step up to the challenge, saying that the NAHT heads' union told him that if primaries thought LAs could support them effectively they would "bite their hands off".
There has also been backing from Professor Mel Ainscow, who headed the Greater Manchester Challenge school improvement scheme. In January, the academic said it was "very dangerous" to set schools free without any local coordination and argued that some authorities, such as Trafford, had proved they could help schools to collaborate and serve all pupils without compromising school autonomy.
"For the most effective local authorities, a satisfactory school has never been good enough," said Matt Dunkley, East Sussex County Council's director of children's services. "That has not changed as schools become academies."
But if LAs are to form education's new "middle tier", they will need to be quick. Sir Michael has already proposed that Ofsted set up local bases to provide a more hands-on service to "help schools to improve", while Labour is considering local school commissioners.
Ms Pritchard argues in her report that this is a "vibrant and exciting time in education" and notes that the "best authorities have not waited on central government to tell them what to do".
But she also warns: "Local authorities do not have a divine right to work with schools."
VIEWS FROM THE TOP
What heads of good and outstanding schools think of local authorities:
"I have little to do with the local authority. They have never stopped me from doing anything, but my school is self-sufficient and I do not need them."
"I love the local authority. The idea of being on my own doing this job terrifies me."
"As an executive head in a successful chain, I have no need for the local authority. We are completely self-sustaining."
"The local authority is an intrinsic partner in our family of schools."
Source: Schools Causing Concern: a research project.