A slightly amended version of this article appeared in the Oxford Times on 31st January 2013
Who is responsible for schools in Oxfordshire? This innocuous question reaches to the heart of the current debate about publicly funded schooling in England. Historically, there were three levels of responsibility: individual schools; local authorities, in our case Oxfordshire County Council; and the government at Westminster. Interestingly, this year, sees the 25th anniversary of the passing of the Education Reform Act. That legislation, by introducing local management of schools, started the process of delivering autonomy to individual schools while at the same time reserving power over the curriculum to the government at Westminster. During the following 25 years local authorities have steadily lost control of their local education service. New types of schools have been developed, ranging from Kenneth Baker’s City Technology Colleges through the grant maintained schools of the 1990s to the more recent sponsored academies of the Labour government, and finally the new converter academies, free schools and university technology colleges all managed from Westminster.
Of course, a range of different bodies running schools is not a new concept. The major churches have been a part of the education landscape since compulsory elementary education was introduced in 1870, and more recently these schools have been joined by those from other faiths. What needs to be resolved now is the chain of responsibility and accountability for publicly funded schools, and whether, as I believe they should, elected local authorities still have a central place in the organisation of schooling?
Since the funding for schools is now largely determined at Westminster, with little room for local political discretion, as is when and where new schools may open, councils have been left with responsibilities, but often no funds or powers to implement them.
The rhetoric from Whitehall has been that chains of academies are the way forward. Local authorities are nowadays pale shadows of such chains, without many of the powers conferred on these private sector chains by the Labour government that invented them. One solution is that councils become just a watch dog, with questions about school performance solved by Whitehall mandarins. This might work for the secondary sector, but with more than 18,000 primary schools across England the chain of command between each school and Whitehall is just too long. Last summer the RSA suggested unelected School Commissioners, along the lines of the Police & Crime Commissioners. That is a possible solution, but it takes away democratic control from a key publicly funded institution, and would create a system for schooling more akin to the NHS.
While the debate about who is responsible for our schools remains unresolved, the present system, especially for the primary sector, risks heading towards a complete collapse. Already, professional development services for schools, effective planning of school places, admission arrangements, and provision of services to children with special educational needs are either under threat or have been severely curtailed.
There is a ray of hope locally in the way that both the County and Oxford City responded when I revealed in November 2011 that KS1 results in the City were the worst for any district council in England. But, it shouldn’t have been up to me to start that debate.
I support local democratic responsibility for schools, directly so for the publically funded primary sector, regardless of who actually operates the schools, and as a watchdog for both the secondary and further education sectors where performance can be the key to the success of local communities. However, what really matters is that the government takes swift action to deal with the present lack of a viable control structure for our school system.
Professor John Howson is the director of dataforeducation.info and holds a visiting professorship at Oxford Brookes University and a visiting senior research fellowship at Oxford University’s Department of Education and has lived in Oxford for more than 30 years. He is a lifelong Liberal Democrat, and Vice President of the Liberal Democrat Education Association. These are his personal views