Schools in chains or not?

The DfE’s recent publication of some case studies relating to effective academy chains presents a useful contrast to the departure of an academy chain earlier in the week; the first such chain to effectively fold. The DfE research can be found at:

Both these events set me thinking about the issue of control of schools. For the past three years, the favoured solution, at least in terms of what has been happening on the ground, has been the converter academy model where in most cases a school goes its own way. This has replaced the sponsored academy model introduced by the Labour government, and now often reserved for either newly formed schools or school that are taken over after failure by Ofsted, or possibly groups of primary schools.

Of course, both chains, and individual schools within the State system, are nothing new in education. The dioceses that manage the large number of church schools might be described as the original chains, and it is interesting to see the Diocese of Wakefield as one of the DfE’s academy chain case studies. At the other end of the spectrum were those individual voluntary aided schools that traced their history back to charitable foundations. Many were, and often still are, selective secondary schools, but, for instance, around London there is a ring of schools linked either to the livery companies or to long-established charities. At one time there were many more, but the amalgamations of the 1980s, during the drop in pupil numbers, witnessed the disappearance of quite a number, including the final vestiges of three in Haringey alone.

Now that the remaining community schools are not very different from academies in respect of their control as local authorities have few powers left, even where they are able to retain considerable influence, the question of the span of control needs properly debating properly.

The chief officer for Children’s Services in Hampshire recently expressed concern to the Select Committee about a dip in performance in some converter academies, and the DfE recently released figures for the number of schools not opening an email about safeguarding. Both these incidents raise the question about effective span of control. The other key question is the place of education in the democratic process?

Put the two questions together and you essentially ask the question successive governments since the Thatcher era have ducked; town hall or Whitehall as the key player in education.

Despite my preference for the local, especially for primary schools, where most children attend their nearest school, and there must be key links to other community services such as health and welfare, I fear we are moving inexorably towards a Whitehall run system with un-elected local commissioners; and not even the semblance of a School Board as in the USA.

I predict that whoever wins the 2015 general election, assuming the nation isn’t in a state of legislative paralysis after a hung parliament when the notion of five year fixed term parliaments may yet come back to haunt the electorate,  any sensible government will take decisive action to make clear the policy and decision-making processes within our school system.

Hopefully, the system that emerges will be effective at continuing to raise standards. Certainly, it won’t be as democratic as what has been the position during most of my lifetime, and possibly it will be expensive in managerial overheads. Whether small chains will survive is still a matter for debate.

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