Is the fact that there are both good and less good local authorities and multi-academy chains (MATs) the main message from today’s new report of the Education Policy Institute? It is certainly likely to be one of the headlines when the report is being discussed. The Report is a follow-on from the one they published in 2015 and has the advantage of being by the same author. https://epi.org.uk/publications-and-research/performance-academy-local-authorities-2017/
However, for me, there are two other key issues raised by the report. The first, given it was generally known that there are good and less good local authorities and MATs, is, how important is democratic accountability in the governance of education?
Where poor performing local authorities are in areas where political control hasn’t altered for many years and there is often one dominant political party running the authority, how can challenge be created and maintained. Did we do better when there were Education Committees as opposed to Cabinet Government, with power sometimes residing in a single cabinet member, subject only to post-hoc scrutiny. Education Committees did have non-politicians in full membership in most authorities and this helped where they created an effective challenge, but it didn’t always work well. As I have mentioned in other posts, local authorities also have geography on their side and I do think that is important.
The EPI report might like next time to look at the outcomes for non-geographical MATs compared with those that have a stronger sense of place. EPI might also like to look at the effective size of governance units and whether there is any relationship between central costs and outcomes? But, commentators must be wary of dancing on the head of a pin. Where teacher supply is an issue, as it is in large parts of England at the present time, then schools that cannot recruit teachers will surely often suffer in terms of their outcomes.
The other concern raised by the EPI Report is that of the span of control faced by the DfE. EPI identified 237 bodies it rates for KS2 outcomes and 218 for KS4. Outwith these tables are the stand-alone academies and free schools that also need central oversight. Indeed, the fact that local authorities still make up two thirds of the listed bodies at KS4 make come as a surprise to many and shows how the ‘stand-alone’ schools are an issue EPI needs to address in the future.
The government also needs to work at deciding upon the model for governance of education that well allow the good to flourish, but also respond to decades of under-performance in some parts of the country. Recent decades have seen the repeated use of the stick to beat local communities for failure and spasmodic attempts, from Blair’s education Action Zones to the current Opportunity Areas programme, to recognise that carrots also have a part to play in improving performance.
Leadership matters and developing the next generation of system leaders ought to be high on the agenda of the government. Leadership is inextricably linked to values and the ability to put them into practice and EPI might also want to explore that most intangible of elements when they do their next study in a couple of years’ time.