The debate about the role of local government in education has raged with much heat and little light.
We remain stuck in mutual antipathy between those who wish local government to continue to “maintain” schools and those who seek greater autonomy and legal separation between local government and schools.
While the debate smoulders, there is very little serious consideration about what we believe local government is for, and what its role in education should be. The two cannot really be separated. Since 2008, the financial settlement for local government has been in decline. The response has been to cut services incrementally. But you can’t keep shaving bits off without the whole thing finally falling over.
So we need to decide what roles we want local government to play – we need a new social contract alongside a new financial settlement.
But back to the question of education. I’d like to offer four scenarios.
1. The status quo
In this first scenario, local government continues in its current trajectory. It either resists or embraces “organisational diversity” – by which I mean different types of schools. In this scenario, local government continues to maintain a few, some or most of its schools. Ultimately, it becomes a “provider” among other providers of education in a diverse landscape of school structures. Is this what we want from local government – for it to be a provider of education alongside other providers?
In this scenario, local government realigns its purpose and functions, with more explicit attention given to education, civic and community outcomes. It positions itself as the builder of social capital – ensuring that every child has a school place and that their needs are met, and championing parents and families.
Local government might also see itself as the convener of groups of schools, providing a bulwark against fragmentation. There are many examples of local authority areas working in this way to create local partnerships of schools – the Birmingham Education Partnership, Herts for Learning and the Tower Hamlets Education Partnership to name a few.
These are typically about services to schools. But they could also support schools to future-proof; to form federated groups, most likely in the form of multi-academy trusts (MATs).
To be clear, the MAT is simply a legal vehicle, not a panacea – one that enables groups of schools to form deep, structurally integrated collaborations. And to focus on using their freedoms as a group to bring about improvements in pupil outcomes.
Thirdly, the devolution scenario. The Cities and Local Government Devolution Act, which became law in 2016, was designed to devolve housing, transport, planning and policy powers to local authorities that agreed to come together as “combined authorities”.
The first “devolution deal” was announced by the government and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in November 2014. There are now more than a dozen such agreements. In the case of Greater Manchester, the agreement set out some powerful strategic levers: eg, a housing investment fund and the power to restructure further education.
Combined authorities could see their role as building human capital and the critical infrastructure needed to help schools succeed. For example, they could use their huge strategic capability to create a sub-regional plan to attract teachers into the area.
They could convene, as Sheffield is attempting to do, a partnership that undertakes the strategic planning of initial teacher education and early career development, bringing together routes into teaching under a common charter mark that promotes the city as a great place for graduates to live and work.
They could support schools to form strong and sustainable groups, with strong cultures of collaborative professional learning.
The metro-mayors are a fascinating new tier of government. They could use their enormous capability to remove the barriers to school success. This is not about the creation of yet more improvement boards or the seizing of powers from regional schools commissioners. I am talking about something more ambitious, more strategic and ultimately game-changing.
This is not typical of today’s practice and it will be hard to create. But the potential rewards are surely worth it.
This may not be as far from the horizon as we might want to think. Driven by a vicious circle of cuts, redundancies and conflicts, local government could reach a point where it is unable to support the schools it is supposed to maintain. This could, in turn, lead to isolation and financial and educational failure – particularly for smaller schools.
Once this starts to happen, public confidence in the state education system will plummet.
One might argue that the destruction scenario could follow on from the status quo scenario – destruction could follow from doing nothing to ensure that schools can sustain themselves as local authorities retract and cuts bite.
The reconstruction and devolution scenarios aren’t mutually exclusive. Both are about resetting the relationship between central and local government. In education terms, both are about facilitating strong and sustainable groups of schools with a relentless focus on improving outcomes for pupils.
I offer these scenarios to stimulate a different sort of debate. One that asks us to consider what we think local government is for – and the role of local government in education.
I believe in local democracy and in local government, but I want to see a more strategic role for them. The time is right to reconsider the role of local government in education, not to remove democratic “control” of schools or accountability for them, but to look at the local democratic project as the architect of place and facilitator of outcomes.
Leora Cruddas is CEO of Freedom and Autonomy for Schools – National Association