A fair crack of the whip to fulfil role

27th January 2012 at 00:00
Local authorities lack power, says Jonathan Carr-West

Whatever you think about academies, it seems that they are here to stay. Forty per cent of secondary schools have converted, or are in the process of converting to, academy status and, although the rate of conversion has slowed, there is little reason to suppose that this number will not continue to grow. Indeed, recent research by the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) showed that a majority of council lead members and directors for children's services thought that more than half the schools in their area would have academy status by the end of 2013.

I should declare an interest. In a previous role, I was involved in setting up an academy and I believe that school (the RSA Academy in Tipton) is a shining example of progressive educational practice and of what can be achieved by an enlightened academy sponsor.

There's also a strong localist argument for academies. We know that successful innovation rarely comes from centralised plans rolled out in a standardised form. Innovation happens when practitioners on the ground are given the freedom to experiment, to respond to localised conditions and to learn quickly from their successes and, even more importantly, their failures.

So if we want to drive real innovation, we need to devolve power down to the lowest possible level - in this case, the school. True localists should therefore at least be open to the idea of academies. At the same time, we know that for innovation and improvement to flourish they also need to be transmitted across broader networks so that others can learn from and adapt them. We also know that there are strategic needs in education that cannot be met by individual schools acting alone. Someone needs to monitor quality, ensure accountability, guarantee that all children get a place and attend school, and provide additional assistance such as school improvement support and services for children with special educational needs.

Local authorities (and local authorities alone) have the capacity and the democratic accountability to perform what government has described as a strategic role, and Michael Gove has said that "in a more autonomous schools system, local authorities have a crucial role to play" in "championing ... families, supporting vulnerable families and championing education excellence".

So whatever we think of academies, they're not disappearing any time soon. And whatever we think of local government's track record in education, it has an ongoing job to do.

The question then becomes: can local authorities play this role effectively and support both academies and maintained schools? Here, the picture is less than clear cut.

Direct funding of academies will reduce the money available to local authorities to provide support services. This may present difficulties, but already we see local councils seeking ways to meet this challenge - for example by innovating in service delivery; increasing the cost of traded services; reducing the range of school support services available to maintained schools; selling traded services to schools that convert to academy status; and competing to provide services in other authority areas.

However, while these sorts of practical measures may help local authorities to transform their support services, many of the respondents surveyed by the LGiU felt that they did not enjoy sufficient legal powers to effectively perform their strategic role to its fullest potential. Specifically, they wanted to be able to intervene in a poorly performing academy; approve academy admission arrangements; direct that a child not on a school's admissions register is admitted to an academy; name an academy in a school attendance order; and charge an academy for pupils attending council-funded alternative provision.

The secretary of state is unlikely to surrender these powers easily, but it's time to make these sorts of details the subject of urgent debate. Education reform is a central part of the government's agenda and the language on all sides tends to be rather overblown. Academies and a local authority role in education are often presented as incompatible alternatives. In truth, events have moved us past that argument. The real question is how we now ensure proper regulation and accountability of a more diverse school system.

Jonathan Carr-West is director of the Local Government Information Unit.

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