Nic Dakin (pictured), MP for Scunthorpe County and former principal of John Leggott College, also in Scunthorpe, writes:
Putting students and parents first is exactly what education should be about. The consumer needs to be in the driving seat. The secondary consumers of the world of work and the state are better served if the primary consumers are given the best information to make the best decisions. Hence the crucial importance of quality careers information, advice and guidance.
It is a focus we need to get back to if we are to ensure that every young person gets the quality of education we would want for our own children. There needs to be confidence that there is a good school place for every child in every community. And a confidence that the quality of leadership and collaboration exists everywhere to raise standards in every community. That every young person has an entitlement to a basic but innovative curriculum, fair funding, access, support for special needs and to a good school place within acceptable reach of the family home. So how can we ensure that we have structures that help us – rather than hinder us – in achieving this goal for all students?
With its ideological obsession with free-market schools and other peccadilloes, the current government is living out its belief that by creating chaos, you drive improvement. To be fair, this will result in some very high-performing institutions, but it will not ensure that all students have the entitlement we wish them to have. It will increase the likelihood of children being taught by unqualified teachers, of students getting zero or poor careers advice, of money being wasted on school places where none are needed while elsewhere there is a shortage of places. Thanks to the coalition government, we are about to suffer the perfect storm of a school places crisis alongside a teacher supply crisis while scarce money in difficult times is frittered away on free-school vanity projects.
Those of us that despair at the impact of this educational vandalism have underlined the importance of learning from best practice – London Challenge, the innovative work of some academy chains or innovative practice elsewhere. So what are the mechanisms to harness this and drive improvements nationwide? The parachuting in of eight commissioners by the current government will not cut the mustard. They will be the representatives of national government in the provinces imposing diktat, adding no value in terms of enhancing accountability.
So I ask two questions from issues brought to me over the last year. Why is it that the remaining local community secondary school feels under greater pressure than other local schools to take those students that nobody else appears to want? And when the parent comes to me unhappy with the response they’ve had from the local academy that belongs to a larger academy chain, who do they then complain to? In these instances, who is best placed to champion the consumer?
For me the answer is clear: it has to be the local authority with its directly elected councillors who are accountable to their community. They, more than anyone else, need to be responsive to their community and wider area. The best local authorities have long shaken off their provider interest and positioned themselves alongside parents and the young people themselves. And those that haven’t need to be challenged to do so.
Personally, I’d give local authorities the duty to ensure that all children in their locality access a nationally-agreed entitlement. They should ensure that collaboration takes place to drive improvement, but may use others to lead it. In my experience, there are two things that are transformative – the quality of teaching and learning and the quality of leadership. Ofsted’s chief inspector is right to highlight the shocking lack of accredited school leaders in some parts of the country that consistently under-perform. He is right to challenge localities to do something about this.
But we could go further. We could look to move some of that inspection resource closer to young people in localities and make the local authority responsible for assuring the performance of all the educational institutions serving children up to 18-years-old. Ofsted would then regularly inspect local authorities and within that inspection inspect a number of institutions within their area to assure itself that the local authority’s judgements are accurate. Where they fail in their duty to provide a good school place to every child through using the levers at their disposal, including driving collaboration and sourcing best leadership practice, the LA would quite properly be put in special measures.
Only at this point should appropriate interventions take place that might include being run by another local authority, an academy chain or by central government.