Does local democratic control matter in education?

How far has the education map of England become a picture of two nations growing apart? There are many different ways in which you can consider that question. One is to look at the governance structure of state funded schools. How many are still maintained schools of the various types largely linked to the 1944 Education Act and how many are now the product of the Ball/Gove academy revolution? Among selective schools the answer is that almost all are academies; only 23 remain as maintained schools and 10 of these are in Kent. At the other end of the spectrum, London is the only region where free schools, UTCs and studio schools comprise more than 10% of the total of secondary schools and even there it is still only 11%. This is despite the fact that London has probably seem the greatest demand for new secondary school places since 2010. In the North East and East Midlands areas, just four per cent of secondary schools fall into the category of these new types of nationally administered schools free from local democratic oversight.

However, academies are a group have become the dominant governance form for secondary schools, accounting for almost two out of three secondary schools in England. Nevertheless, the percentage is still lower in the north of England and, perhaps more surprisingly, in London and especially Inner London, where 81 of the 185 secondary schools are still local authority maintained comprehensives than in the rest of England.

Of course, just counting schools is a somewhat imprecise measure, since schools do differ in size from small 11-16 schools to large 2,000+ 11-18 or all-through schools. The same is true in the primary sector, where there as some very large schools coping with recent pupil growth, but still many small schools in rural areas. The percentage of schools that are academies or free schools differs from the secondary sector in some regions.

GO REGION PRIMARY ACADEMIES/FREE SCHOOLS ALL PRIMARY % ACADEMIES/FREE SCHOOLS
SW 632 1870 34%
EM 454 1635 28%
YH 466 1785 26%
WM 437 1776 25%
EE 485 1993 24%
L 363 1816 20%
SE 507 2598 20%
NE 155 861 18%
NW 249 2452 10%
ALL SCHOOLS 3748 16786 22%
 

 

     

However, there are fewer primary academies across much of the north of England and in London. The preponderance of Conservative controlled county councils in the south West many account for the relatively high percentage of primary academies in that regional, although it is still only around one in three primary schools, much lower than the percentage in the secondary sector.

As a Lib Dem politician, I wonder whether it is worth testing a campaign in the South West along the lines of ‘return our schools to community democratic oversight’. The membership has never seemingly taken to academies and control from Westminster in the manner that Lib Dem spokespeople and Ministers seem to have done. I am not sure where the present spokesperson stands on this issue?

Such a campaign might also highlight that there is no way back for schools entering MATs. The government may remove them to another MAT and MATs may voluntarily give up or even close a school, but neither the community not the local governors can seemingly force the trustees, those with the real power in a MAT, do so. Like much of the NHS, this is a denial of local democratic involvement in a key public service.

There is, however, one gain from the academy programme, the 140 academies that are selective schools can have their status changed to non-selective schools much more easily than when they were still maintained schools.

 

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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: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/academy-sponsor-profiles

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.