What’s happened to the Blunkett Review – and what should happen next?Posted: December 3, 2014
In his recent speech to Comprehensive Future, Tristram Hunt nailed his colours firmly to the commissioner/ provider split for the provision of schools and how they are held accountable. The Director of School Standards is to be the key figure on the commissioning side.
At the same time, it is a commitment that local authorities are to be allowed to open new maintained schools – but they won’t have the exclusive right to do this. The commissioner/provider split means that if local authorities are competing with other providers, they can’t be the commissioner. It then follows that the Director of School Standards, although appointed by local authorities (with some DfE involvement) has to have a level of separation from the local authorities whose bids s/he may be judging. But at the same time, the DSS is only to have a very modest staff so will rely on local authorities for much of the work of planning the demand for places and monitoring school performance.
It’s an interesting task then to try and reduce to a diagram what seems to be being proposed. It would look something like this:
Looked at like this, it’s pretty clear that this is not a great deal clearer that the hopeless muddle that we have at the moment. Local authorities will have a direct relationship with some schools but not with all. The DfE will continue to have a contractual relationship with some schools but not with all. The DSS is at one and the same time an appointee of and collaborator with local authorities but also will have to judge local authority proposals against others. Disputes won’t be handled locally but will end up at the DfE. We will continue to have schools with different budgets, duties and levels of autonomy.
One solution of course would be to return all schools to maintained status. There would be no commissioner/ provider split and roles would be clearly and simply defined. But we know this will not happen. The legal complexities would be huge as would be the organisational upheaval and there is clearly no political appetite for this kind of change.
The other way forward is try to create a commissioner/ provider system which is unambiguous but at the same time reduces the current fragmentation and restores a proper public service ethos to the system. This means asking the heretical question, do we actually need maintained schools?
The Blunkett Review, in a little noticed section, floated the idea of maintained schools grouping together into what he called community trusts as an alternative to maintained status. We already also have the co-operative trust model which has become a major feature of the school system in a number of parts of the country.
The key question to be answered is whether having a mixed economy of maintained schools and academies and one in which local authorities compete with other providers has any merit. I would argue that it doesn’t and that it actually gets in the way of local authorities doing their real jobs.
In summary these are:
– To represent the interests of their communities
– To plan provision in the best interests of the whole community
– To promote co-ordination and collaboration
– To monitor performance and take corrective action when needed.
None of these are actually dependent on the current model of maintained schools. So you could have a much tidier system that looks like this:
In this structure roles are clear and lines of accountability, ultimately to local communities are clear. There are no mixed messages and the DSS can act on behalf of and be accountable to local authorities with no conflicts of interest getting in the way.
This would not of itself restore equity and coherence to the system. Nor would it guarantee that public service values would replace the creeping privatisation that we are now seeing. We would need actions along these lines:
• No governor or trustee permitted to have any financial dealings with the school.
• All schools to have their own governing bodies with full powers
• No distinction between funding for different kinds of school and all schools to have budgets directly allocated to them not to a chain or trust.
• A common set of regulations applies to all schools
• Schools free to join or leave any trust with the agreement of the DSS.
• Academy contracts managed by the DSS not the DfE or the EFA
• Public sector standards of transparency to apply to all organisations involved in the management, governance and oversight of state funded schools.
You would then soon see how many current sponsors are in the business to genuinely enhance the quality of education rather than for personal aggrandizement or back door profit. And you would also find whether schools think their sponsors actually add any value or not. The role of the DSS would become clear as would their accountability to their local community and to elected representatives:
Role and powers of the DSS (to be exercised with the agreement of the Local Education Panel :
• Ensure there are adequate school places, commissioning new schools and closing or changing schools as necessary and after full consultation.
• Ensure a fair and consistent admissions system.
• Monitor the performance of all schools and their compliance with law and regulations.
• Promote collaboration between schools.
• Intervene when monitoring shows this to be necessary.
• Control the resources needed to undertake these roles.
Labour’s approach to all of these issues has not really advanced since Blunkett’s review was published. Devolution has become the absolute flavour of the month since the Scottish referendum but education has been strangely absent from the debate about returning real power to localities. This isn’t an issue that can go on being ignored. Without some clear and radical thinking there is every danger that the current muddle will be replaced by something that is no real improvement.