Why do we need Local Educational Authorities?

24 Apr

I           Introduction

Let me come clean.  I used to be the Assistant Director of Education for a Local Educational Authority (LEA) nearly a score of years ago.   My last few years with the authority weren’t good ones because the constant restructuring caused me to watch my professional back to protect my being from redundancy.  In fact, in my final four years, I was made redundant thrice and on all three occasions the redundancy notices were withdrawn.  However, on the last occasion, I thought that I could be more useful working for schools than the local authority.   Since then, I have not looked back.

Despite this, I do believe that now more than ever, we need local authorities to steady the national education ship.   Let me explain why. 

Writing on the Institute of Education (IoE) University of London website on 2 April 2014, Chris Husband, Director of the IoE, stated that it was the view of a panel of eminent participants at a debate held in March that the radical reforms of the last four years have defined the policy territory for the foreseeable future.  “Academisation will not be rolled back, the curriculum has been decisively re-shaped and assessment reform has been extensive.”  The panel was stellar in composition: Lord Kenneth Baker and Baroness Estelle Morris, former Secretaries of State, Baroness Sally Morgan, personal assistant to Tony Blair, former Prime Minister and until recently Chair of Ofsted, and John Coles, Chief Executive of United Learning, a group of academies and independent schools and former Director General for Education Standards.

The challenges for the next parliament would be pressing, members of the panel observed, but unglamorous.  These included securing enough school places in the face of rising rolls, addressing the challenges of school governance in a system in which education is provided by 25,000 autonomous institutions and developing a common and reliable funding formula.

However, participants reminded the panel that there were other issues that had to be resolved such as high quality careers advice, community cohesion, raising the attainment of the 16-18 year group and reducing the number of young people not in education, employment or training (the NEETs).

What was clear was that, given the considerable investment of taxpayers’ money in education, it was too important for it not to have political involvement.   What was less clear, however, was whether, after the 2015 elections, politicians would allow educationists a period of stability to bed down the reforms of the last 70 years.  I suspect not.

While Michael Gove, the Secretary of State, is to be commended for grasping the nettle of grade inflation and teachers’ performance management, his relentless resolve to convert every school that has the whiff of failure into an academy, in my view, is misconceived.

Gove appears to have made academies the norm, certainly in the secondary sector where 54% are sponsored or converter academies.  It is undoubtedly true that many have been success stories.  Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney, East London, where the former principal was Sir Michael Wilshaw, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of School, is one.

Camilla Cavendish, The Sunday Times correspondent, commended Lord Andrew Adonis, former Schools Minister, for inventing the scheme “to liberate schools from the dead hand of local education authorities (LEAs)”.  On his watch, he established 133 academies – by 2008.   Today, there are over 3,500 in the country.  Gove’s mulish approach has speeded the transformation.   However, we are beginning to see the growth of unintended consequences.  (Can we forget Margaret Thatcher’s resolution to force through the sale of council houses, which today has left social housing impoverished?)

II          Academy Chains

One outcome of academisation has been the emasculation of local authorities.  Their ability to support schools – particularly vulnerable ones – has diminished considerably.   Commentators like Cavendish have welcomed this, with some justification, because of the political interference that schools suffered at their hands.   Remember the chaos in Brent, for example, in the 1980s because of the warped notions of the equal opportunities thought police.  And then, there were the “Communist Republics of Liverpool and Sheffield”

However, it was possible for the government to intervene when local authorities behaved badly.   The then government’s inspection troops were sent into the Brent to garner information firsthand and require changes.   Local authority budgets were trimmed where money was misspent.  Government could do this because there were only 150 LEAs.

The present situation is resulting in there being little or nothing between 25,000 maintained schools and academies and the government.  Undeniably, local authorities still exist and are there to support the schools, which have remained under their umbrella.  But their financial ability to do so has been seriously impaired so that the provision of challenge and support – of a professional nature – is virtually non-existent. Volunteer governors – who lack the training of education officers, while doing great work – are now expected to assume the LEA mantle.

Some governors fail to do so and their schools end up in an Ofsted “category” – i.e. informed that they require improvement, are in serious weaknesses or placed in special measures.  The situation spirals downwards with the DfE sending in its commissars, forcing them to become academies and link with other ones because (despite the lack of research evidence) the government is of the view that that is the only way to educational redemption.   However, is it?

III        Monitoring Academies

There are over a score of academy chains.   Of these, the DfE has barred 14 of them not to take on any more schools because of serious concerns over the educational standards and/or financial mismanagement at many of their schools.   E-Act, one of the chains, was forced to hand over about a third of its 34 schools back to the government after a series of Ofsted inspections unearthed serious weaknesses.

ARK (Absolute Return for Kids) is one of the success stories.  In form, it replicates the work of LEAs because with a centralised structure it has been possible for ARK to bring about economies of scale. The only difference between a chain like ARK and an LEA is that the former is an unelected body while the latter is, so that the local community has little or no say in how education at ARK schools is to be shaped and developed.

However, despite having successful chains like ARK, many academies are standalones.   Several are successful – but not all.   In the past, when schools began going downhill, the LEAs had responsibility for identifying them, establishing the cause of failure and pulling them around. Today, only Ofsted stands between academies/Free Schools and the government.  Ofsted does not have the capacity that 150 LEAs had in the past and its surveillance function is limited.

Towards the end of the Spring Term 2014, the public was deluged with news about a number of Birmingham schools (allegedly) being infiltrated with hardline Islamists who were intending to indoctrinate the pupils.   Ofsted inspectors – the government’s storm troopers – were ordered to investigate.  Four were inspected in March and another eight in the last week of term.

This has heralded a change of practice. In an emergency, where Ofsted (normally) visits schools is when the progress and standards of pupils are at risk.  We now have a case where inspectors are visiting to investigate indoctrination.    At the time of writing, we have not received Ofsted’s reports on these schools.

IV        Financial Mismanagement

The Education Funding Agency (EFA) oversees the £54 billion allocated to local authority schools, academies and Free Schools to provide for 8 million pupils and students from the ages of 3 to 16 and 1.6 million students from 16 to 19.   Previously, LEAs acted as buffers between maintained schools and the EFA.  Now there is nothing between academies and Free Schools on the one hand and the EFA on the other.  Has the EFA the capacity to ensure that finances of academies and Free Schools are managed efficiently, effectively and with probity?  Do the EFA have sufficient resources to do so?  The answer appears to be lost in the wind.

We have seen how over £2 million was wasted in one LA maintained school, Copland, in the London Borough of Brent, because of mismanagement on the part of the governors and headteacher.  This was despite Copland was a foundation school under the aegis of a small local authority.   The chances of this occurring on a large scale with several more schools under a national body, i.e. the EFA, are more likely.

IV        School Places

The Academies Act 2010 created a situation where if there is a shortage of school places in an area, the local authority must first approach the community to ascertain whether anyone has the time and energy to establish an academy or Free School to meet the increased demand.   Only if no one body is forthcoming will an LA be able to build a new school in the area.

There are serious problems with this arrangement.  In various parts of the country there has been a sudden influx of primary aged pupils because of an increase in birth-rates as well as tectonic demographic shifts resulting from the expansion of the European Union and wars in the Middle East, Afghanistan and the Balkans.   Britain has become a haven for many families with young children.

LAs have had little or no lead-in time to plan for places.   Accordingly, they have had to create bulge classes in established schools in the short term and expand others from two to three, three to four and four to five forms of entry in the medium term.  Michael Gove has recognised this and increased the sum allocated for new classes from £5 billion to £7.3 billion.

The legislation has put the kibosh on LAs’ ability to create new schools.    According to the Labour Party’s analysis, a quarter of councils face a shortage of school places in September 2014.   The party adds that the situation is likely to worsen with 50% of local authorities facing a shortage of primary places in September 2015 rising to two-thirds by September 2017.

The unholy haste with which LAs are having to deal with the crisis has resulted in the number of primary schools with over 800 pupils rising from 16 to 43 in the last three years while the number of infants taught in classes with over 30 doubling to almost 72,000.

V         Conclusion

The great and the good at the seminar held in the IoE concluded that it was about time that the government ceased to legislate and allow good practice to be embedded.  However, a future government will have to go back to first principles and consider whether the legislation that we currently have is, indeed, fit for purpose.

Do the DfE, Ofsted and the EFA have the capacity for supervising 25,000 schools in England?  If not, what can be done?   Is there a case for re-empowering local education authorities?  Many of them have failed the country in the past.  But can exceptional flops to be the basis of throwing out the education baby with the bath water?  Is it time for us to reinstate LEAs and if so what new legislation will be required?

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