Does democracy matter?

The evidence published today by the DfE on achievements by some schools within some academy groups https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/multi-academy-trust-performance-measures-2015-to-2016 is of course interesting, even with the caveats surrounding it.

However, as academies move from novelty innovation to mainstream feature of our school system there are substantial questions to be asked about their impact on the education scene across England. The most fundamental question, and one that both the two main political parties have always avoided, is whether or not local democratic involvement in education is helpful or a waste of time and money? Regular readers of this blog will know where I stand: firmly in the localism court.

Over the past year, since the publication of the White Paper in March, with its view of a fully academised system, to the recent announcement of a role for local authorities as envisaged in the funding of SEN (discussed in the previous post) there seems to have been some change of thinking. Should we consider Multi-Academy Trusts as playing a similar role to the diocese under the former system and academies as a new form of national school, but not very dissimilar to the existing voluntary aided sector.

The real question is whether there are to be two parallel but separate schools systems, one national one more local, but both funded nationally or should there be a recognition that some facets of schools are best handled locally for all schools. A move to reassure councils that in-year admissions were to return to them for all schools with associated funding might be a useful signal of the direction of travel. A second would be to require MATs to have a local authority representative as a trustee. A third might be to break up the role of director of Children’s Services back into a social work role and plus a separate education role. This would certainly help with creating career routes for professionals from both backgrounds.

Personally, I would also like to ensure there aren’t diseconomies of scale that can result when MATs are responsible for schools in many different geographical areas. The advantage of working with local authorities for the DfE is that Regional School Commissioners could be located within the Education Funding Agency and act as Territorial Principals used to do in the days when schooling was a partnership between central and local government. Local Education Scrutiny Committees could be widened to include more than just governor and faith group representatives to encompass the different interest groups, much as former Education Committees used to do before Cabinet government was invented.

What is clear is that the present muddle in the governance of schooling won’t help ensure the improvement of all schools to reach new high standards Britain will need to compete in a world where we have chosen to ‘go it alone’ and break with our continental neighbours. At least the return of FE & HE to the DfE means there is one department at Westminster with responsibility of the whole of education again. But, responsibility doesn’t mean taking operational control, nor does it mean a fully market-based system with no local democratic involvement.

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Can we afford 2,000 MATs?

Earlier today the Regional School Commissioner (RSC) for the area that covers Oxfordshire appeared in front of the county’s Education Scrutiny Committee. This was his second annual visit since taking up the post of RSC. He brought along his new deputy to listen to the exchanges.  The discussion was robust at times. The RSC revealed that he now has a staff of around 50 people in his office and has established three sub-regional boards because the area he covers is so large. However, he didn’t know what his total budget for the office of RSC was, but promised to write to the Committee with the figure.

Two other interesting facts that came out during the discussion were, first, that the chairs a committee that includes civil servants from other bodies such as the EFA and Ofsted so that he can co-ordinate ‘soft intelligence’ about schools. Chairing such a committee places an RSC in a very important position with regard to all the academies in his area. He also revealed that he thought multi-academy trusts should probably normally range from 1-15 schools depending upon location. He also wasn’t seemingly in favour of clusters of secondary schools in the same MAT, as in the ARK and Harris models. This is despite his view that the reinvention of advisory teachers for those that want to stay in their subject and not more into general leadership seem an attractive idea to him. Without some degree of local groupings of secondary schools the travel involved, apart from being wasteful of resources, might also dissuade some good candidates from applying for such a post.

Taking the point about wasting of resources in a time of austerity and tax cuts for business further, an average size of a MAT of ten schools might require around 2,000 extra schools leaders if replaced across the county, once the post of CEO of a MAT replaced the former Executive Head role. With on-costs this might cost around £200 million a year, as this blog has pointed out before. Even an average size of 20 schools in a MAT might cost upwards of £100 million. That figure would cost the equivalent of more than 3,000 classroom teachers across the sector. That seems a high price to pay for ditching local democracy and imposing an NHS style direct rule system on the school sector.

The RSC agreed that local authorities have the duty to provide education for pupils in academies where the plug is pulled for either financial reasons or persistent poor performance, if a transfer to another MAT cannot be organised. Why would a MAT want to take on a school with a financial deficit even if the MAT was prepared to try to overcome a long-standing period of under-performance against expectations?

In answer to a question the RSC seemed to accept announcing a school closure for September any time after Easter would place a burden on a local authority with regard to finding alternative school places. With reduced resources in local government, such a burden could probably only be met by taking staff off of other work. The Committee didn’t ask about the effects of closing a school in a rural area if it meant increased transport cost to local council Tax payers.

All in all the RSC must have felt the session was good preparation in case he is ever asked to appear in front of a parliamentary Select Committee, but it left this member of the Committee wondering whether the benefits of the system really outweigh the costs?