The toast of ministers says they're playing with fire
Professor Mel Ainscow's standing with the government could not be higher. He has just featured in the New Year Honours list and the high-profile school improvement initiative he led has been praised as a "success" by education secretary Michael Gove. But the University of Manchester academic is warning that his ministerial fans are taking a "very dangerous" risk by setting schools free from councils and letting market forces rip without any local regulation.
The Greater Manchester Challenge, the initiative led by Professor Ainscow, "achieved great results" according to Mr Gove, and that praise has now been followed up with a CBE. However, in a TES interview Professor Ainscow said the scheme, which encouraged collaboration between schools facing similar problems, would not have worked as well without a local institution coordinating the work.
The academic is the second high-profile figure in recent weeks to warn ministers that the thousands of state schools moving outside local authority control through academy status will need some kind of local supervision.
Sir Michael Wilshaw, hand-picked by Mr Gove to take over as chief inspector of Ofsted this month, has said that the idea of district superintendents or school commissioners should be considered. "A government cannot monitor or administer 30,000 schools from the centre, but it does have a duty to put into place local checks and balances to satisfy itself that an increasingly autonomous system is held regularly to account," the feted former head argued in December.
Now Professor Ainscow has said: "The government's policy of 'setting schools free' is very dangerous without some new form of local coordination.
"There is a policy silence about this at the moment. I think that Michael Gove and his colleagues genuinely believe that market forces will take care of all this.
"But that will create winners and losers, and we can all predict who the losers will be. We need more regulation of the market."
The academic said that, like Sir Michael, he was not arguing for a return to traditional-style local authorities, which had "demonstrably not delivered". But he said some councils, like Trafford in Greater Manchester, had proved they could help schools to collaborate and work for the good of all local pupils without compromising school autonomy.
He reached his conclusions after spending five years embedded with other University of Manchester researchers in a group of four secondaries. The team tried to help the schools work together to produce fairer outcomes for all pupils, regardless of background.
A book that reports their findings highlights one of the secondary schools, which served two very disadvantaged housing estates. The authors explain how the school failed because it was dogged by external problems outside its control - for example, it was constantly perceived as the lowest rung of a multi-tiered local hierarchy of schools. The consequent lack of parental demand reinforced the secondary's position at the bottom of the heap.
The book argues that many schools across the country share similar problems caused by economic deprivation, lack of family aspiration and being on the wrong end of parental choice. It says that to combat them they need to be linked to wider community efforts to overcome inequalities among pupils, and for that to happen some kind of "local coordination" is "vital".
Professor Ainscow told TES that a stripped-down model of an education authority, run by heads on secondment from local schools with a small central staff, would be more appropriate than the traditional approach.
"Developing Equitable Education Systems" by Mel Ainscow, Alan Dyson, Sue Goldrick and Mel West of the University of Manchester is published by Routledge.