The Middle Tier Debate

The Local Government Information Unit has just published a significant contribution to the growing debate on the “middle tier” in education. Intriguingly it was launched at an event presided over by David Laws in his new capacity of part-time Minister for Schools.

The report is a summary of views by a number of contributors including Tim Brighouse, Melissa Benn, councillors from all parties and most interestingly the Chief Executives of two of the major academy chains, Jon Coles and Lucy Heller. It can be found at http://www.lgiu.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Should-we-shed-the-middle-tier.pdf

The broad outcome was that there is a need for a middle tier:

“it is simply not possible for the Secretary of State to hold each of England’s 24,000 schools to account”

 “some local body is needed to stop schools choosing students and make parental choice real”

“…expressed scepticism that central government could secure sufficient school places without a partner with local knowledge, connections and influence”

“the majority of contributors believed that local government was best-placed to perform a middle tier role”.

Comments like these came from all the contributors. So it does seem that the argument for a locally rooted middle tier has been won outside of a small minority of ideologues around (and including) Michael Gove.

What its nature should be is debated at some length in the paper. There was little appetite for the invention of new organisations such as single purpose school boards or elected commissioners, if only because of the cost and disruption involved. The consensus was to build new arrangements on existing local government structures.

But having said that, there remains a lot of fuzzy thinking around how a new system should operate. Quite a number of the contributors didn’t seem to see beyond the deeply confused status quo … so for example “the important thing is to get on with the business of supporting schools” with councils exerting some moral leadership while retaining the mix of academies and maintained schools that we have at present. Disappointingly this kind of fudge seems to have been promoted mainly by the local government representatives.

Some contributors though were thinking out of the box and recognised that new arrangements need not to be tangled up in historic arrangements and disputes. The central question is whether or not middle tier authorities can be really independent champions of parents and of standards while they directly maintain some schools but not others. Jon Coles made the case, with characteristic clarity, arguing that “councils could only be a real provider of an independent accountability function once they no longer had a significant provision role.”

That may seem like academy chain self-interest. But stand back from all the current battles, and there is a compelling logic to this position. We need a settlement that is stable and can end the instability and guerrilla warfare that now bedevils the system. It will not be a return to 1988 or 1997 but nor will it be the nightmare vision of a school system with no planning or democratic accountability driven only by the market and ultimately by profit.

Contributors were clear that academy chains have a different job. They manage schools and to varying degrees provide support services. But they are not a replacement for a middle tier responsible for strategic management of the school system. Quoting Jon Coles again, “a key quality of the middle tier is that it is independent of local schools and has a view of the totality of the local education system.” A good example given is exclusions – “an exclusion policy may benefit an individual school but may be ultimately detrimental to the education system as a whole.”  Someone has to hold the ring.

The logic of this is that we have to go back to first principles in relation to school commissioning, governance and funding. We need to decide what the proper scope of a school’s autonomy should be. And be very clear that there is no scope for taking profits out of the system directly or in directly.

Then all schools should be put onto a level playing field whether it be in terms of funding, employment, premises or curriculum. There can be no logical justification for different schools having different levels of autonomy nor for the absurd amount of trench warfare around issues of academy status.

Then we need to decide what the middle tier does – the consensus in the LGIU document seems to centre on:

  • Place planning and capital funding
  • Admissions
  • Accountability – for educational performance but also for financial probity – and intervention.
  • The needs of vulnerable children and those with special needs.

This is essentially a pure commissioning relationship. It would need to apply to all schools. Crucially we need to get rid of the differences of status between schools which so often distorts reputations and consequently parental choice – they should be judged on the basis of their effectiveness not on whether they’re independent, free, religious, specialist or whatever. And commissioning would be local and democratic. We have to end the nonsense of DfE intervention driven by politics and ideology rather than the needs of schools.

It’s hard to imagine David Laws persuading Michael Gove to move in this direction. So this has to be a job for Labour. There is the opportunity for Labour to build on a growing consensus and to develop detailed proposals that will leave Gove isolated in his ideological ivory tower.

 

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2 Comments on “The Middle Tier Debate”

  1. Richard Pring says:

    Dear John Thank you for this very helpful report and comment on it.

    Your four functions of the ‘middle tier’ which you envisaged did not include legal services or professional advice (as used to come from local inspectors). Presumably legal help could easily be added in. With regard to local advisers, I suspect not. But schools always needed these and always will. Very difficult to re-create these in the present suggestions. But if all schools are to belong to some sort of chains, we could encourage them to become Co-0perative Trust Schools, which belong now to a network of nearly 300 schoools, all of which share professional support and cluster together etc. Any thoughts?

    Richard

    Richard ________________________________

    • johnebolt says:

      Hi Richard. I think that things like legal services (and HR, payroll and others) have been traded services for some time. I would leave it to schools and local authorities to work out how best to provide them. Advisory services are perhaps a bit more complicated – the middle tier will need professional advisers if they’re going to monitor standards properly and that job should include brokering support especially for schools in difficulties. But if the middle tier is also selling professional support, is there not some conflict of interests – not easy to honestly assess how effective support is if it’s your own staff. Is it better if CPD and other support comes from other schools, universities, National College etc?

      I agree the Co-op trust model is certainly one that could be used. I can also see groups of local schools (cross phase) coming together with trusts representing local stakeholders.

      John