Ofsted on Doncaster – local elections do actually make a difference

It’s now pretty common for commentators on the education scene to come up with the simplistic observation that local elections are irrelevant to education. It makes no difference who runs local councils, we’re told, because they have no significant role with schools.

Against that background, Ofsted’s latest report on school improvement makes interesting reading. This time its Doncaster that takes a beating. The first point to make is that Ofsted thinks the local authority does matter and that it has a responsibility in relation to all schools. In Doncaster, 25% of schools are academies and that includes 12 out of 14 secondary schools. But in Ofsted’s view that doesn’t take let the council off the hook.

There are no doubt lots of ways in which Ofsted’s criticism could be considered to be unfair. It largely ignores the impact of the cuts imposed in the last four years. It takes no notice of the way in which successive governments have down-graded the local authority role in education.

But looking at it another way, Ofsted is perhaps pointing the way to a way of doing things. And what is certainly interesting about the Doncaster report is the evidence it provides to show that local elections do make a difference.

The starting point is that standards in Doncaster are not good. In that it’s typical of a number of places in that part of the country. The report identifies the ways in which the council’s engagement with schools has been weak over some time. This is of course a council that has had major issues over the past 10 years going back to the “Donnygate scandals”. It’s been found inadequate in managing children’s safety and a range of interventions have been seen over the years to try and make things better.

The quality of data about schools has been an issue and Ofsted are at least honest in recognising that “in the past, there have been some difficulties in collecting performance data from academy schools.” That’s a reminder of the fact that there are real challenges for any council in working with academies.

Most of the criticism from Ofsted relates to circumstances before the change of administration that took place in 2013. From 2009 to 2013, the elected mayor was from the English Democrats, a tiny right wing grouping that sees the French National Front as its natural ally. It’s pretty clear that the result was a mess with councillors at loggerheads with the mayor and an administration clearly not up to the job.

In 2013, that changed with the election of a Labour mayor supported by a majority Labour council. Ofsted says that “The profile of poor performance was recognised by elected members when the administration changed in May 2013. Since that time, a number of initiatives have been implemented, including regular discussions between senior officers and the Lead Member for Education and academy sponsors. Headteachers of all types of schools report better relationships with the local authority.”

It’s very clear that there has been real change in the last year. Not surprisingly, there is no evidence yet in outcomes for pupils, so Ofsted are still concerned and still find a lot that needs to be done. But there is a clear direction of travel and it is clearly linked to political change in the council chamber.

One conclusion you could draw from this saga is that elected mayors aren’t necessarily the answer. A mayor detached from the infrastructure of a political party and without support amongst councillors can be a seriously loose cannon, though interestingly the voters of Doncaster confirmed that they wanted to keep this system just a couple of years ago.

But what the Doncaster story shows above all is that councils don’t have to be irrelevant. There are plenty of examples of councils that are clearly making a difference in many parts of the country. It also shows that local elections aren’t just a big opinion poll on the government at Westminster. They still do actually make a difference to what actually happens on the ground.