Is a middle tier needed to ensure better accountability in the schools system?


The RSA was discussing last week the idea of a middle tier in education. There is  concern that as schools are given greater autonomy from local authority influence, and   made directly  accountable to the Secretary of State, through their  funding agreements,  they will, in practice, be less accountable than they were before the changes.  There are over 1700 schools now with academy status and the numbers continue to rise.   Who  is keeping a close  local eye on their performance, providing  ,for example, early warning of a school that is  badly under performing ?  Local  authorities are/were  supposed to do this (  with varying degrees of success, it has to be said)

Rick Muir of the IPPR  has argued that school improvement cannot be driven successfully from Whitehall. The Department for Education cannot run 20,000 schools. Every successful school system, he points out, has a middle tier of governance between schools and the centre. Ofsted is currently proposing to re-inspect schools requiring improvement after 12-18 months.  But, he argues,   it is not close enough to schools to monitor performance on a month-by-month basis, spot problems early on and  to intervene before the problems  escalate. There are a number of functions this (middle) tier will need to perform, he says. In successful systems intermediary bodies help to drive school improvement by monitoring the performance of the schools under their jurisdiction and supporting weaker school leaders to improve. They are crucial in managing the relationship between schools and central government, such as by explaining national policy developments and ensuring that critical national programmes are implemented. He adds that ‘An effective middle tier also fosters collaboration between schools, for instance by moving teachers around to fill gaps or by supporting their professional development through specialist training and peer support. It ensures that the needs of all local children are met by regulating fair access, providing sufficient school places and managing services for children with special educational needs. The middle tier can also carry out administrative roles, such as in finance and procurement, that can distract schools from their main purpose.’

Muir concludes that the government seems content to see local authorities wither away, while hoping that academy chains such as Harris, ARK and Oasis will take on these roles. While Academy chains are well placed to carry out some of these tasks it has become clear that chains will only cover a minority of schools: so far, only a quarter of ‘converter academies’ have joined these wider chains. Moreover, some of the chains are rather loose arrangements, without clear leadership and effective coordination’

So, Muir recommends the  creation of  local schools commissioners, who would commission (but not run or manage) all of the schools in their area, including free schools and academies, and have a singular focus on school improvement. Schools would retain the freedoms they enjoy today and these would be guaranteed in statute. But if schools coast or underperform the schools commissioner would have the power that currently rests with the secretary of state to intervene, ultimately by appointing a new head and governing body.

Christine Gilbert the former Head of Ofsted ,for her part, believes town halls should no longer be at the heart of school improvement and monitoring. Nor is she keen on the idea  of local commissioners or any other kind of new “middle tier” idea. Ms Gilbert thinks the job should be left to schools themselves. “It would be the profession supporting the profession,” she explains. “They (local authorities) have a role, particularly in making sure that vulnerable children are well served,” she concedes. “But I see the energy in the system coming from schools. I would really like to see the schools themselves in prime position, to be leading and driving this. “You can do it with other private, public or voluntary sector partners. But I would like to see (groups of schools) given contracts to do that for four or five years. Notions of commissioners and other sorts of middle tier are not the right way for us to be going at the moment.” She added, talking to the TES ,that there would need to be a proper framework with contracts that could be terminated if schools were not meeting their performance indicators or contractual duties.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of schools, says that there could be a system of nationally-funded local area commissioners. He suggested that the local commissioners would report directly to the secretary of state, monitoring the performance of schools and chains in their area and bringing in other agencies where necessary and appropriate.

John Dunford points out that McKinsey research has shown that all the highly successful school systems in the world  have a middle tier between central government and the individual school and most of the jurisdictions in the McKinsey study are much smaller than England.  So, he suggests a network of about 40 District HMIs charged with monitoring performance of schools in their area, getting to know head teachers and keeping an ear to the ground for good and bad practice in local schools.  He says that  with a truly independent Ofsted, this could provide valuable intelligence to the system, helping to spread good practice and advising Ofsted and the government on where intervention is needed at an earlier stage than tends to happen now. Their remit would cover all types of school and issues between local authorities and academies would be entirely avoided by this nationally-led system. In short, the reinvention, in an up-to-date form, of district HMIs would be beneficial, not least because it would force Ofsted to play a stronger role in school improvement, as well as in (intelligent) accountability.

The RSA looks at the middle tier from a curriculum perspective. RSA is concerned about who determines the curriculum offer provided by schools, and on what basis.  The Government will need to monitor the different emergent curriculum offers provided, in relation to effectiveness, it says. The RSA advocates that such consideration include the curriculum’s role ‘in promoting engagement and local cohesion and agency.’

The RSA recommend, as part of another tier, that the respective roles of teachers, communities, parents and school leaders are considered in developing curriculum offers, and in their evaluation.  However, the RSA has doubts about teachers capacity  on their own to develop curriculum and to engage with communities and supports the idea that local commissioning or regulatory bodies may be necessary to form an intermediate layer between individual institutions and the centre. What these intermediate bodies look like is  the subject of on-going debate.  The RSA advocates that such bodies be comprised of teachers, parents and community representatives as a means of ensuring local accountability and engagement.

Schools, yes  ,even Academies fail. Spotting schools that are on the cusp of failure and  which need urgent support is important and saves much bother and expense further down the line.  As Dunford says ‘With autonomy in any public service comes greater accountability for the efficient and effective spending of public money. The issue is not whether there should be this accountability, but whether it is intelligent accountability and by whom it is exercised.’  Whether his model is the best to deliver this is a moot point.  But this debate is certainly useful  and important as evidenced by the Regulators intervention.


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