Politicians rule: OK?

The recent Select Committee report on Multi Academy Trusts (MATs) raises two significant issues in my mind. https://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmselect/cmeduc/204/20402.htm

These issues are of

Community and,

Democratic control

They are rather neatly summed up by the Select Committee in their executive summary as follows:

We have outlined six characteristics which we believe trusts must possess in order to be successful. These include strong regional structures, robust financial controls, enhanced opportunities for career development and tangible accountability at all levels.

Some of the earliest trusts expanded too quickly over wide geographic regions and the performance of their schools suffered as a result. We are encouraged by the development of a MAT ‘growth check’ and urge the Government to use this to ensure that trusts are only allowed to take on more schools when they have the capacity to grow successfully.

…There is also more work to be done to ensure that MATs are accountable to the communities in which their schools are located. There must be more engagement with parents and clarity around the role of local governing boards.

In my view the Committee could have used this report to go further and to have started to make the case for accountability for schooling to be brought back through the local ballot box. This would have fitted in well with the National Audit Office’s recent report where they highlighted the lack of coherent pupil place planning and the lack of any one body having overall control of the process, although local authorities retained the obligation to ensure sufficient places were available for all pupils that wanted one. And, it was local authorities that sent out the offer letters to parents this week, even where they have no control over the admission arrangements.

After nearly half a century when rampant capitalism has held sway at Westminster, under governments of all political persuasions, and municipalisation gave way to mega deals brokered in Whitehall, is the tide finally turning?

I don’t think BREXIT has yet had the time to change the public consciousness about the role of parliament at Westminster and the possible effects on the delivery of local services. However, it is clear that Westminster will be a much busier place, if it does its job properly, once Article 50 has been triggered.

Alongside the exit management process will be the return to a requirement that the sovereign parliament at Westminster must craft all our laws and not just fill in the gaps from European legislation. This will affect some parts of government more than others. Although education wasn’t as affected by the transfer of powers during our EU sojourn, as some areas of government, it is a moot point whether government will be able to meet the demands of operating a universal education service while still meeting the needs of all local communities.

Sure, some local authorities were poor at providing education, as some are with all services. Sometimes this comes down to money; other times to leadership and ambition. For instance, using the LAIT tool on the DfE web site, Oxfordshire comes 6th best on percentage of children still being breastfed at six weeks, but 125th on the percentage of pupils with free school meals achieving expected levels of phonics decoding. Public health is now a local government responsibility, whereas for academies and free schools there is little the local authority can do to change the phonics outcomes, regardless of whether you think the approach is the correct one.

So, what to do? A simple solution would be to rethink Schools Forums to include politicians as voting members in proportion to the political balance of the council. A 50:50 balance overall might be the first stage of change. Alongside this to also make clear the relationship between all schools and the local community. Could we see academies as a 21st century form of voluntary added school?

Local democracy may be imperfect, but in my experience communities do care about the local standard of education, even where many parents opt out of the state system. I would ensure a tighter regulation than in the past, so that Commissioners can be called in to run poorly performing authorities for a period. But if there is a patterns to these types of authority requiring commissioners; too small; too poorly funded; not attractive places to work, then central government does need learn the lessons and create reforms. What it doesn’t need to do is to privatise the service. In the modern world profit can take many forms and not just dividends, as the lucky shareholders of Snapchat discovered yesterday.

Post BREXIT we will need a successful education system even more than before if we are to pay our way and fund thriving services for future generations. Bring back education as ‘a local service nationally administered’.

 

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