No hiding place for ministers in a 100% academy system

There are widespread rumours about what the government intends to do to push forward its academy agenda later this year. Since the election they’ve nailed their colours firmly to the mast. David Cameron has said he wants all schools to be academies by 2020 and George Osbourne has talked openly about the end of local authority involvement in running schools.

No one yet knows what this will look like in practice. But it raises two sets of issues – one is around planning and accountability. The other is whether a system based on individual school funding agreements can work for so many schools. This post will look at the first set of issues and a follow up will focus on the second.

There can be little doubt that the whole area of planning and accountability is a hopeless muddle. Who actually decides what schools there should be in an area? Who makes sure everyone has a fair choice of school? Whose job is it to monitor performance and deal with problem schools?

The answer at the moment is an unholy muddle of Ministers and civil servants, Regional Schools Commissioners, academy chains and local authorities. Some things are directed in great detail from the centre and others are left to the random workings of a pseudo-market. So for example:

• local authorities still have the duty to ensure there are sufficient school places
• but they can’t require academies and free schools to co-operate with their plans
• and ministers or RSC’s can and do open, close or change free schools any time they like.

The Chief Inspector apparently still thinks that local politicians are responsible. He told CentreForum

“We need powerful political figures who feel responsible to local people for the performance of local schools. Obviously, it is a matter for government whether the recent drive to devolve powers locally should include education. But, even without more formal powers, shouldn’t local politicians take more responsibility for education and expect more of their schools?”

Ministerial views seem to have passed him by – though a cynic would perhaps say that a favourite Wilshaw pastime is blaming local politicians at every opportunity and he’s not isn’t going to give up his pleasures that easily.

But then the government’s preferred solution, Regional Schools Commissioners, have just had a good kicking from the Select Committee. The committee found that their role was unclear, their ways of working inconsistent and lacking in transparency and their objectives often inappropriate. As the Tory chair put it “the oversight system is now confused, fragmented, and lacking in transparency. RSCs are a product of the Department’s ‘acting first, thinking later’ approach when it comes to big changes in the schools landscape.”

But from another point of view, Jonathan Simons in a recent blog (http://www.policyexchange.org.uk/media-centre/blogs/category/item/let-s-stop-eulogising-democratic-accountability) tried to argue that accountability of schools through local councils doesn’t work. The evidence he based this on was that there is no relationship between local election results and school performance. Specifically, councils with low performing schools mostly don’t get punished at the ballot box.

This is of course a very narrow definition of democratic accountability. To begin with, people vote for lots of reasons – and always have to consider whether they think any other party would do better. But more importantly, accountability isn’t just about elections. It’s about people being able to bend the ear of councillors at surgeries and about local intelligence being used in a continuing dialogue with schools. And recognising that opinion polling just today found people trust local councillors twice as much as they do government ministers.

When results aren’t good, it’s an easy temptation to just find someone to blame. Wilshaw is a past master at this – it’s politician’s fault, not enough good heads, too much poor teaching and so on. Not often do we ask ourselves, is there something about the lives of people in places where exam results are less good, that might explain it. Perhaps because that would raise some rather harder questions about inequality, the north-south divide and the collapse of decent, skilled employment opportunities in so many places.

No one would say that we’ve ever had a perfect system. But if ministers go down the road of universal academisation, writing local authorities out of the picture entirely, they’ve taken on a big job. Do they propose to shift all 198 statutory duties away from local authorities? Are they ready to trust all to the Education Funding Agency described by Newsnight’s Chris Cook as possibly “the most incompetent organisation in government”.

And most of all are ministers ready to take personal responsibility for every failing school. Do they really understand that sponsored academies perform less well than similar maintained schools both in exams and in inspections? In a famous quote, Nye Bevan said that “if a bedpan is dropped in a hospital corridor in Tredegar, the reverberations should echo around Whitehall”. That is the world education ministers seem to be happy to get themselves into. A decision they may live to regret!

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