The missing middle

School gates

The government’s laissez-faire experiment with our schools is depriving local people of a voice. Schools commissioners could provide the answer, writes Rick Muir

The rapid expansion of free schools and academies has left a gap at the heart of the English school system. Schools have become largely autonomous, while local authorities’ previous role has been gutted. The Department for Education has become increasingly powerful: ministers approve and finance free schools and academies and only they have the power to intervene if an academy or free school were to underperform.

School improvement cannot be driven successfully from Whitehall. Every successful school system has a middle tier of governance between schools and the centre. Ofsted is currently proposing to re-inspect schools requiring improvement after 12-18 months. It is not close enough to schools to monitor performance on a month-by-month basis, spot problems early on and intervene before they escalate.

Ministers are complacent about this problem because they believe that competition and choice will largely drive improvements in schools, meaning that ministerial intervention can be limited to a handful of egregious cases. This belief is misplaced: while managed competition has a role in improving public services, in schools it has a mixed record. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has looked at the cross-national data and concluded that greater competition in a school system does not drive high performance.

Rather than taking this laissez-faire approach to tackling educational underachievement, successful systems all use the judicious exercise of public authority to push school improvement, challenge complacency and intervene when schools coast or fail. Ministers are too distant from what is happening in schools up and down the country to carry out this function effectively. We therefore need a new middle tier that encompasses all schools, including free schools and academies.

There are a number of functions this tier will need to perform. In successful systems intermediary bodies help to drive school improvement by monitoring the performance of the schools under their jurisdiction and supporting weaker school leaders to improve. They are crucial in managing the relationship between schools and central government, such as by explaining national policy developments and ensuring that critical national programmes are implemented.

An effective middle tier also fosters collaboration between schools, for instance by moving teachers around to fill gaps or by supporting their professional development through specialist training and peer support. It ensures that the needs of all local children are met by regulating fair access, providing sufficient school places and managing services for children with special educational needs. The middle tier can also carry out administrative roles, such as in finance and procurement, that can distract schools from their main purpose.

In England local authorities continue to carry out many of these functions but they are now covering a dwindling number of the country’s secondary schools. The government seems content to see local authorities wither away, while hoping that academy chains such as Harris, ARK and Oasis will take on these roles.

Academy chains are well placed to carry out some of these tasks. However, it has become clear that chains will only cover a minority of schools: so far, only a quarter of ‘converter academies’ have joined these wider chains. Moreover, some of the chains are rather loose arrangements, without clear leadership and effective coordination.

More fundamentally there are some functions that only a territorially based and democratically legitimate body can perform. Chains cannot speak for parents or act as a voice for the local community. They do carry out performance management but they cannot provide independent assessment and challenge. Because they lack a local civic voice, chains cannot mobilise the resources of the wider community, such as the businesses, the voluntary sector and local community groups in support of school improvement. Chains which cover schools across disparate areas cannot be responsible for allocating school funding, planning school places or ensuring special educational needs across an area are met.

Why not return to the previous system of local authorities running schools? Local authorities should play an important role in this middle tier, but it should be a different role to that of the past. School autonomy has been shown internationally to give school leaders greater flexibility to respond to the learning needs of their pupils and it is here to stay. While many local authorities have an outstanding recent record on school improvement, in the past too many councils lacked a focus on schools and too often tolerated schools that were manifestly failing.

Instead we should create local schools commissioners, who would commission (but not run or manage) all of the schools in their area, including free schools and academies, and have a singular focus on school improvement. Schools would retain the freedoms they enjoy today and these would be guaranteed in statute. But if schools coast or underperform the schools commissioner would have the power that currently rests with the secretary of state to intervene, ultimately by appointing a new head and governing body.

Commissioners would act as a mediating layer for the majority of schools that are not part of academy chains, supporting them to improve through collaboration, promoting the professional development of teachers and ensuring schools respond effectively to national policy changes. They would be responsible for making sure that the needs of all children in their area are being met.

Commissioners could take a variety of different forms. The chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, has proposed that they be appointed by the secretary of state, but this leaves no room for local accountability. Some have proposed that they be directly elected. The danger with that method is that they end up replicating the experience of the United States where local school boards elected on very low turnouts are often captured by vested interests.

A better approach would be for the commissioner to be appointed by the local council or elected mayor. They would have an independent legal status so that they could provide robust challenge to the local authority’s own schools. To ensure proper accountability, parents should have the power to petition for the removal of the commissioner where schools are not improving fast enough.

The model could be piloted in the big cities where the challenge is greatest, but later extended to all upper-tier local authority areas. In London there is a strong case for a city-wide commissioner appointed by the capital’s mayor, although a commissioner at this scale would clearly have to work with the boroughs, which could broadly retain their current responsibilities, especially for primary schools.

A powerful post such as this could attract high-calibre candidates on a par with Joel Klein who successfully helped turn around New York’s school system as the city’s schools commissioner. More widely, we could follow the Canadian model of school superintendents where an outstanding local headteacher is promoted to the role by the local school board.

Despite the progress of the last decade, there are still too many children being left behind in our education system. The government has pinned its hopes on markets as the main driver of school improvement, but schools will always require democratic public management and this is better done locally than centrally. School commissioners provide a more effective, progressive and locally accountable alternative.

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Rick Muir is associate director at IPPR

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Read also:

Don’t reinvent the wheel by Steve Reed, a response to The missing middle

The case for school commissioners by Josh MacAlister

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Photo: John Kelly

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