Adapting to the new environment
Both threats and opportunities are opening up
Local authorities have had to adapt and evolve their roles in a diversified mixed economy of schools. Most secondary schools are now academies accountable direct to the Secretary of State through their Funding Agreements. The idea of free schools and academies is that they are ‘free’ from local authority bureaucracy. (although there is a myth still around that Local authorities actually ran schools).
But they still have the following core roles in respect of education:
Ensuring sufficient supply of school places (something of a challenge in the current environment)
Tackling underperformance in schools
Supporting vulnerable children (SEN etc)
They are carrying out these tasks within a self-improving school system. This places a real responsibility on schools to help themselves and to drive improvement (bottom up as opposed to top down) and to enter into partnerships and collaborative ventures with other schools. There is now a recognition that most of the expertise needed to improve schools lies within schools. So, the leaders of successful schools can create and transfer successful practice into less successful schools. The proposition is that you can raise standards and reduce inequities by strong schools helping partners who are struggling. Local authorities can still, of course, play a role as a facilitator or enabler here. But so too can other players. Agents can, in effect, help foment effective collaboration. Robert Hill and Christine Gilbert recently reported on the challenges faced by Thurrock education authority which is seeking to quicken the pace of improvements in its schools. In their report they best summed up the collaborative approach and prevailing orthodoxy on how to improve a school system. They wrote ‘there is already considerable evidence that suggests that outcomes improve fastest and children and young people benefit most, when schools work together to lead improvement and where they share concern and responsibility for all children and young people in their area , not just their own school’. This is what Professor Andy Hargreaves means by ‘collective autonomy’ as opposed to individual autonomy (which leads to an atomised system)
School partnerships can come in the form of teaching school alliances, Federations, Transition groups and subject networks, both formal and informal, ‘hard’ and ‘soft’. The potential for sharing information, innovation and informed practice throughout the system is significant.
A big challenge for local authorities is to match supply with demand for school places. As we have seen from the crisis in Primary places some are struggling to cope. But the task is not an easy one. Many more schools are now free to set their own admissions numbers and authorities have to cope with the dual challenges of how to create new school places when demand rises within an autonomous school system and how to cope with the consequences of over-supply. One factor that makes this a particular challenge is that many academies do not wish to expand in size to meet demand. Do not assume that a successful school, in demand, wants to expand, even if it can.
It is sometimes forgotten, in the midst of these structural changes to the school landscape, that local authorities continue to hold democratic accountability for securing good outcomes for all children and young people in their area. They have a statutory duty too in exercising their education and training functions to do so with a view to promote high standards and to promote the fulfilment of learning potential. So the challenge, in a somewhat fragmented system, is to ensure that every school has access to school to school support and access to informed external support. Secondary schools can, by and large, access support for school improvement, whether from an external source or from the local authority itself, but there are concerns that Primary schools find this more difficult. Teaching School Alliances could provide the potential route for schools to source support from other schools in their local areas. Some local authorities appear to be using these alliances to regain some of the strategic role and influence they once had.
One overriding concern that many local authorities have is that in future they may not have the capacity to support and challenge maintained schools given the reduction in local authorities’ school improvement teams and the consequent haemorrhaging of expertise.
Then there is the issue of accountability and a third tier. Schools can support each other but who is there to act as an independent, third party or broker to challenge them? And is there sufficient shared intelligence in the current system to spot early on declining performance in a school before it impacts on its results and it enters a downward spiral. Those schools that are not part of a chain could be most vulnerable, and most schools are not, of course, part of a chain. What is also quite interesting and little known in this respect is that since January 2013, a total of 25 academy chains have agreed to pause and restrict their growth and further expansion. The government wants chains to concentrate on their quality rather than quantity as there is a perception that some chains have expanded too quickly. But a big question is, given the importance attached to chains within the new system in driving improvements and in providing accountability-what overall effect will this slowdown have?
Certainly local authorities have challenges on their hands but some are more fleet of foot than others and are becoming brokers to ensure school to school partnerships develop and have access to a range of support. They are also providing traded services to schools and refining these traded services to meet demand, as well as providing advice on quality assurance. Jonathan Carr-West chief executive of the Local Government Information Unit recently told Christopher Woolfrey of the Key that “ councils have had to be more entrepreneurial :to sell services to schools rather than offer them automatically and to make sure these services represent good value. Now its much more of a client provider relationship”. As Woolfrey points out, local authorities are reshaping their relationships with schools and given the nature of their historical relationship and the information and data they have on these schools they potentially enjoy a market advantage over private operators. Whether they exploit this fully is another matter.