Councils need to rise to Ofsted’s challenge and show they make a difference

There’s a lot of debate and a lot of uncertainty about what a future Labour government would mean for the education role of local authorities. Think tanks have spent the last couple of years trying to work out how some kind of local role can be restored. Now we await the Blunkett review to give us some kind of steer as to where policy might be going.

But there is much less live debate about what councils should be doing now in the face of Gove’s onslaught. The result is a huge lack of clarity and a wide variety of practice across the country. There remain a mass of legal duties on local authorities but also massive confusion about how they are supposed to exercise them.

Nowhere is this more true than in the area of monitoring school standards and intervening to address underachievement. According to their funding agreements, academies and free schools are responsible only to the DfE and only the Secretary of State has any power to intervene. But Ofsted is now marching round the country judging local authority school improvement work almost as if the academy movement had never happened.

Take for example one of the most recent unsatisfactory reports, on Middlesborough. According to Ofsted, Middlesborough has

“not established effective partnerships with schools, particularly secondaries. The authority does not know the schools in the area well enough to bring about the rapid improvement that is urgently needed. The lack of clear systems and protocols for sharing data between the authority and schools, particularly secondary schools, means that declining performance is not identified early enough for intervention to be timely and effective.”

Now it would be possible to shrug and point out that five of the seven secondary schools are academies so that makes it someone else’s problem. It would certainly be reasonable to point out a good many examples of inconsistency and confusion in Ofsted’s reports on Middlesborough’s schools.

For example in May 2013, one school was praised because its GCSE performance “had improved steadily over a sustained period”. The actual 5 A* to C with English and maths results over the previous four years were 38%, 51%, 49% and 48%.

In another case Ofsted confidently predicted that “results are set to rise even further this year” (2013). Actually they fell from 48% to 34%.

And in another Ofsted concluded that ”the school’s trustees provide effective support by having the Chair of Governors as a representative” – hardly setting high expectations!

Picking holes in Ofsted reports isn’t hard. The really tough question for local authorities is whether they accept the Ofsted assertion that they still have a responsibility for standards in all state-funded schools and if so how they are going to put that into practice.

It seems to me, that if councils want to claim a role in any different kind of future, the answer to that first question has to be yes. It will obviously be best if there is a local consensus amongst all kinds of schools to work together and to acknowledge a significant role for the council. This would include both monitoring and brokering roles. There are a good many examples of excellent practice up and down the country where councils have been successful in keeping the confidence of schools and consequently have successfully exercised a leadership role but in a new way. These have been documented in a number of publications such as:

There will be times though when collaboration doesn’t work. One good example is the number of schools that are adopting admission criteria designed to favour themselves at the expense of other. Some schools too will try and wriggle round the duty to accept their share of SEN and vulnerable pupils. There will be cases too where academies and free schools refuse to engage on a school improvement agenda either with councils or with other schools.

My answer here would be that there is a duty based on democratic legitimacy for councils not just to accept this kind of situation. Moreover for Labour councils there are also political gains – if Michael Gove wants to take personal responsibility for thousands of schools, he needs to be faced with the consequences of that policy. So for example Councils should:

– Use their powers of Scrutiny – which are not restricted to investigating the Council’s own services – to investigate and report publicly on schools that are under-performing or are acting to the detriment of other schools or groups of local people.

– Take schools in breach of the admissions code to the Adjudicator.

– Take complaints to the Education Funding Agency or to the DfE where schools refuse to co-operate or are under-performing.

– Get MP’s to raise issues through questions or debates.

– Get issues out in the open, for example in local press and radio.

These will not be the first port of call. Co-operation is much to be preferred. But it does no one any good if local authorities roll over and let themselves be marginalised. If they want a future role, they need to stand up and fight for it – and that means all not just some.


2 Comments on “Councils need to rise to Ofsted’s challenge and show they make a difference”

  1. David Pavett says:

    I agree with the case for a strong advocacy role for councils which John recommends in this blog. In fact, I want a role for them that goes far beyond that and wish that the Labour Party had a similar view.

    At the same time I think that we have to recognise that many (most?) local councils have had any serious political guts and intentions knocked out of them by successive governments (Tory, Labour, Coalition). If my local Council is anything to go by it is hard to find a political thought among the sixty councillors. I really do not want even to ask how many of them have ever given a second thought to education.

    John says “There’s a lot of debate and a lot of uncertainty about what a future Labour government would mean for the education role of local authorities”.

    Doesn’t that tell us a lot about the Labour Party after nearly four years in opposition.

    Similarly with “Now we await the Blunkett review to give us some kind of steer as to where policy might be going”.

    And that just at the point when we are being asked to comment on Labour’s policy on education i.e. we are being asked to comment on policy before we are told what it is.

    But still, the case for local council activism on education is for me solid. The Links John gives are great (The council role in school improvement, Innovative local authority school improvement approaches and Schools forge new relationships with local authorities)

    Ultimately the answer to problems of admission codes and SEN responsibilities must be resolved at a higher level than schools which should not be allowed to make up their own rules. Labour’s Educational and Children consultation document seems to say as much – this being among the very few clear commitments that it contains.

    I agree that councils should challenge schools that refuse to cooperate with such things as SEN placements. Would Labour put an end to the situation in which this sort of refusal is possible.

    It would be excellent if Councils would take up the issues of scrutiny, admissions, complaints about lack of co-operation and would raise issues with MPs and in the local press and radio. I am trying to imagine how many of my Labour councillors could even understand that, let alone do something about it.