THE MIDDLE TIER IN THE EDUCATION SYSTEM-DO WE NEED IT?

Do we need a  middle tier in  the  system ?

Twigg launches  Consultation

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With most Secondary schools now academies -there are 1,877 academies open in total across England, autonomous from local authority control- there are two  distinct  trends  evident. The first , Heads are being given more freedom over the running of their schools. The second, Heads are incurring greater responsibility for meeting the statutory duties required of schools.  But some are concerned that there is an absence of early warning systems and accountability mechanisms  for some schools that have taken this course.Research  from the World Bank and OECD suggests a clear  link between positive outcomes and school autonomy but only if combined with sufficient accountability.

The functions that have traditionally been fulfilled by local authorities- it has to be said ,with varying degrees of success- are now left with individual schools or groups of schools (chains ,federations etc). The Chains can probably cope and in most  instances are very good. But  some  individual schools may find it hard to cope, and, if things are not going too  well, how long will it take to spot?    Hence, the calls for the establishment of some form of middle tier in the system.

The government is very wary of these arguments.  Ministers see this as a means (self-serving) of re-establishing local authority control and bureaucracy over schools,  indeed precisely what their  structural reforms were designed to remove. In the past some schools have been trapped, without any choice in the matter. Local authority support-or nothing- and, in too many cases, local authorities have failed them, year in, year out. They want the balance of power to remain with schools, not to shift back to authorities. There is nothing now to stop schools accessing support from local authorities, if they so wish.  Some local authority school improvement services are good, some not . But  schools  now have a choice.  And choice is generally a good thing.  Now, as things stand,  local authority support is based on consent.     It is significant, and  no surprise, that lobbyists for local authorities are particularly active in marketing the middle tier idea. But, setting this aside, the middle tier argument is not without its merit, and   it has its advocates outside local authorities and their active support network.

Stephen Twigg, the Shadow Education Secretary, believes that autonomy for schools makes sense (some too readily forget that Academies were launched by Labour) but nonetheless  has concerns that schools will become isolated.  So, whilst it is right to encourage schools to form partnerships that will help raise standards, the current accountability gap leaves too much to chance, he believes.  So, Twigg has launched a consultation on the middle tier, to consider options from all those involved in education. Twigg says,  “The direction of travel under current government policy is heavily centralised. So whilst the government talks about localism, we are not seeing a decentralisation in accountability. It is neither desirable, nor feasible, for thousands of schools to be directly accountable to the Education Secretary. If we are to have greater responsiveness, we need a localised system that mitigates risk and involves local communities in their schools.”

Jonathan Crossley Holland, until recently with private sector provider Tribal, now an independent consultant, was recently commissioned by the Association of Directors of Children’s Services to produce a report on the future role of local authorities in school improvement. He says the evidence is clear .All successful school improvement models require a middle layer. He told the Guardian, this week “Local authorities are uniquely placed to play this role. Many do so effectively, but too many do not. The challenge to those LAs is to restore confidence by raising their game, sharing good practice and being prepared to move to radically different models, such as regionally based commissioning of licensed school-improvement services, which may include academy chains and school-led partnerships. “The challenge to government is to apply the same energy it does to the academy programme to enable all local authorities to be good.” He thinks ministers should look at what is being done in high-performing countries such as Singapore and the Canadian provinces, where investment in school-improvement leadership is considered as important as high-quality school leadership and heads are trained alongside school-improvement staff.

Alan Wood, director of children’s services for the London borough of Hackney told the Guardian  “There must be one body that acts for all the education institutions in a community,” he explains. “Eventually everyone will come round to this view because otherwise everything will end up at the door of the minister. And, in reality, only the local authority can perform this role. “Local authorities have a democratic mandate, they can set a vision, plan places, intervene for school improvement, manage admissions, be bold about leadership and maintain a relationship between local and central government that doesn’t rely on Soviet-style intervention,” he says. “This can’t be done by a handful of chains. Local authorities that are actively trying to push their schools out and relinquish their role are in my view not confident about their moral purpose and responsibility.”

The Tory Chairman of the Education Select Committee Graham Stuart has  said “  I think there needs to be something between the Secretary of State (Make the Grade-Interview- CIEA June 2012) and the school gate that is able to broker support and lend a helping hand  to schools that have got into trouble”.  However, Christine Gilbert who heads the newly established Academies Commission recently gave the  TES her view on the middle tier question and  it  is not the answer you would necessarily  expect from someone who made their name leading local education authorities. Gilbert believes town halls should no longer be at the heart of school improvement and monitoring.  Nor, indeed, should local commissioners or any other kind of new “middle tier” idea currently being floated. Ms Gilbert thinks the job should be left to schools themselves. “It would be the profession supporting the profession,” she explains.

Ofsted’s Sir Michael Wilshaw understands the concerns over accountability but, rather than wanting local authorities back in the frame, is advocating Local School Commissioners. These would be heads or maybe ex-heads, locally based with a sound knowledge of local schools, with Sir Michael recommending that they are directly employed by the Department for Education.

There are different solutions to resolving the accountability issue. But government advisers will acknowledge, in private at least, that ensuring a high level  of accountability   under the new architecture is an on-going challenge.

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