What’s happened to the Blunkett Review – and what should happen next?

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:

Untity accountability

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:

tidy accountability

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.

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6 Comments on “What’s happened to the Blunkett Review – and what should happen next?”

  1. Richard Hatcher says:

    John is right to say that Hunt’s proposals in Education and Children are ‘not a great deal clearer that the hopeless muddle that we have at the moment’. But I think he is wrong to reject returning all schools to maintained status and wrong not to reject the proposal for local Directors of School Standards.

    John says ‘one solution of course would be to return all schools to maintained status… 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.’

    It is not the case that there are legal obstacles. According to David Wolfe, the expert on the law regarding academies, ‘we have already seen funding agreements being overridden by legislation: in relation to permanent exclusions and SEN. In each of those instances, whatever the funding agreement says no longer applies.’ (http://davidwolfe.org.uk/wordpress/). As secretary of state Tristram Hunt could simply use the existing statutory powers to remove the control of academies by sponsors, including the removal of the right of sponsors to appoint governors. The latter is surely required by John’s call for ‘A common set of regulations [which] applies to all schools.’

    One consequence of the legislation would be the recovering of the ownership of school premises from the sponsoring academy trust. Again this is entailed in John’s proposal – which is in the Blunkett Review but omitted from Education and Children – for ‘Schools free to … leave any trust’, which would also require legislation to override the funding agreement.

    So the explanation for why ‘this will not happen’ is straightforwardly ‘there is clearly no political appetite’ on the part of the Labour leadership, but that is a reason to step up the campaign for a unified local authority school system, not a reason to concede the argument six months before the general election.

    The corollary of the acceptance of the continuing fragmentation of local schools systems because of academies and free schools remaining separate from local authority schools is the acceptance of Directors of School Standards. John makes some proposals for the role and powers of the DSS in the interest of ‘tidy accountability’, but in my view they don’t resolve the problem of power, for two reasons. First, it is the DSS, unelected, not the elected local authority, who would, in John’s words, ‘Control the resources needed to undertake these roles’. In reality the DSS would be the local arm of the DfE, a colonial administrator over local authorities, not dissimilar from the Coalition’s Regional Schools Commissioners.

    Second, the DSS’s powers would ‘be exercised with the agreement of the Local Education Panel.’ Now I think the idea of a Local Education Panel is a good one. If it were expanded to include representatives of all local stakeholders it would be close to my conception of a Local Education Forum. The problem is that though it was proposed in the Blunkett Review it doesn’t appear at all in Education and Children. Clearly it’s a democratic reform for which the Labour leadership has no political appetite, in spite of their claims in Education and Children that ‘Labour will empower local communities to have a greater say about education in their area’ (p78).

    All of the DSS’s functions could be carried out by reformed, properly resourced and democratised local authorities, with oversight by an independent HMI as appropriate. External support including from government may be needed for a transitional period to enable local authorities to get back on their feet, but this is not to be confused with the permanent structural division of powers between local authorities and DSSs which Labour proposes.

  2. David Pavett says:

    Labour’s current proposals, as interpreted by John in the first diagram plus comments, are a mess, or at the very least could lead to one, as he argues. When considering the alternatives John dismisses the idea of returning schools to local authorities on the grounds of the complexity of the change and perhaps more tellingly because “there is clearly no political appetite for this kind of change”.

    Richard, on the other hand, says that the complexity is not huge and I think he is right. Secondly, it is not clear whose “political appetite” is in question. Polls indicate that the political appetite of the general public is ready for a return to an LA framework for schools. So it would appear that the political appetite in question is that of professional politicians. I don’t think it would be wise to limit the world of reasonable demands to what that class of people feels able to stomach. In addition the SEA agreed at its Conference in 2012 to call

    “… upon the Shadow Education Team to prepare for the further development of local democratic control over the planning and accountability of the education system in their area. This must be based upon a body composed of elected representatives, not individually appointed commissioners.”

    This implies either separately elected bodies which the SEA, as I understand it, is not arguing for, or for a return to a local authority framework. It also implies opposition to school commissioners of the DSS as proposed by Labour.

    I agree with John’s objections to the the “mixed economy” approach and, as he concludes, this opposition leads us to requiring an enhanced role for LAs with the DSS being subordinated to its decisions thereby becoming something completely different from what Labour is proposing and would also be in contradiction to the DSS’s statutory independence (which is what Blunkett proposed and which we must assume is Labour policy even though there has never been a formal decision to that effect). I think that such arrangement would make the DSS into a supernumerary. Just another reason to oppose the creation of this post.

    It seems to me therefore that John’s arguments have taken him beyond the point where there is a political appetite in the Labour leadership for what he is proposing. But then that is no more a good reason to reject what he says than it is to reject the idea placing all state-funded schools within a local authority framework.

    Labour’s education policies are ambiguous and lacking in detail. It’s educational leadership lacks courage and lacks vision as a consequence of which it is unable to take advantage of the public appetite for something bolder. There is every reason therefore to argue for what we think the most appropriate solutions would be and not to trim our proposals to what, by second guessing, we think might be acceptable to the Labour leadership. The title, after all asks “what should happen next?” not “What do we think Tristram Hunt might be prepared to consider at this point in time?”.

  3. johnebolt says:

    My point in this article is exactly to show how you can put in place “local democratic control over the planning and accountability of the education system in their area”. That can I think perfectly well be done by a Local Panel (not the words I’d use but not critical) – after all Education Committees always used to have a range of non-Councillor members and by a Director of School Standards – as good a name for a chief officer as any other. This role should have nothing to do with the DfE.

    What gets in the way is the local authority relationship with maintained schools. That’s why Blunkett tied himself in knots trying to distance the DSS from local authorities that have a different relationship with some but not all of their schools.

    I don’t believe that the present regime of sponsorship and chains can be allowed to stand. But nor do i assume that there is no role for external organisations whether charities, universities or parent groups to be part of the governance of a school – under proper rules and proper local supervision.

  4. David Pavett says:

    I agree with John that ways should be open for interested parties to “be part of the governance of a school – under proper rules and proper local supervision”. That is, I think, clearly not what current models provide and I think that John says as much.

    In Finland where impressive outcomes are achieved with 98% of children going to their local authority comprehensive schools alternatives are still allowed. Private schools, for example, can be set up but only if they do not charge and do not select their intake. If those sorts of parameters were in the frame of Labour Party considerations (as one might hope from a Party which describes itself as a “democratic socialist party”) then I guess our discussions would be very different. less fractious, and more productive. But, currently, we are rather far from such a position.

  5. pauljmartin2014 says:

    I sometimes wonder why there is amnesia about School Organisation Committees that, in my experience worked very much like LEPs until Tony Blair’s administration decided to abolish them. They were administered by LEAs and included a substantial number of local councillors but they were legally independent. Their great value was that the LEA had to produce a detailed report on what school provision was needed, present it in public, and have no built-in majority.
    My more authoritarian colleagues on the Council hated it because they couldn’t stitch it up behind closed doors, but it forced us to be very clear about our evidence and reasoning when opening, modifying or closing schools. And, of course, the LEA was still proposing and commissioning new schools. The requirement to publish proposals well in advance gave almost as much democracy as anyone could handle.

    On a point of detail, I think Richard Hatcher’s reference to David Woolfe is not quite accurate. I am pretty sure that exactly what David warned us against was getting tied up in arguments over ownership of school premises, particularly as it is rarely the issue that determines what students and parents experience.

    Elsewhere, Margaret Morris has very rightly pointed out that the real frightener is that Tristram Hunt and colleagues don’t seem to realise how very urgent the school places shortage (closely followed by the teacher famine) is almost certain to be.

    Sadly, I think John is right in saying there is little political appetite, though my concern is that this is at least as true of local councillors as of the Labour Front Bench. Perhaps they will rediscover it when they have had enough angry parents shouting at them at their advice surgeries…

  6. Richard Hatcher says:

    David Wolfe offers two ways in which a Labour secretary of state could easily reintegrate academies into a local authority system in his May 2013 Education Law Journal article ‘Schools: The Legal Structures, the Accidents of History and the Legacies of Timing and Circumstance’. It’s just a question of political will.

    ‘Option 2: Back to Maintained School Status
    Another ‘big’ option would be for legislation to convert all academies into a form of maintained school. That way, all of the obligations which currently do, and in the future will, apply to maintained schools (both constraining them but in some instances giving them powers which academies lack) would also apply automatically to such schools. It would be akin to what happened in 1998 when the grant maintained schools were brought back under local authority oversight. A new, bespoke, form of maintained school could be created, or an existing form adopted and if necessary tweaked, such as the ‘voluntary aided’ model.’

    ‘Option 3: A Bespoke Approach
    The third alternative would be to adopt the approach taken by Secretary of State Gove to exclusions or to SEN, as above, namely to override funding agreements by regulations or by primary legislation (or perhaps both) but on a wider range of issues and in order to bring proper coherence and restore a schools ‘system’.’