That is the blunt choice facing the school system in Birmingham. The government’s massive cuts in the Local Authority’s budget, coupled with the loss of schools to academies – now half of secondary schools and one in three primary schools – means a new role for the LA and a new relationship with schools.
What Birmingham CASE thinks
One option is for the LA to be reduced to a few basic functions while the schools go off on their own, individually and in groups, many controlled by private chains. But Birmingham Campaign for State Education says it is vital that we retain a city-wide network of schools – including academies – rather than a completely fragmented system, and with an active leadership role within it by the LA as the legitimate elected representative of the people of Birmingham, for three reasons:
1) School improvement needs city-wide coordination and direction
‘School improvement’ is now largely the responsibility of the schools themselves, supporting each other when needed. The growth in collaborative networks and partnerships is to be welcomed, but left on its own it is patchy, uneven. For example, the Primary School Improvement Group is working well, but its resources are stretched. Meanwhile the secondary equivalent has disbanded. There is a vital role for the LA in identifying need, coordinating support and providing direction. Without it there will be schools needing support and not getting it, leaving them vulnerable to forced academisation. But every school, not just those at risk, can learn something from other schools across the city, ideas which raise standards and improve the experience of education for children and teachers, but it needs central coordination by the schools and the LA working together.
2) Birmingham schools and the LA need to work in partnership with a unified vision and voice
The school system in Birmingham is diversified in lots of ways. But it has to be more than the sum of its parts. It has to offer a coherent range of provision unified by an over-arching shared vision and purpose. There are two major city-wide issues facing our schools: drastically reducing the huge gaps in social inequality in education, and tackling the relationship between school and the labour market to cut the high level of youth unemployment and provide more high-skill jobs. Both need a coordinated city-wide approach by, again, the schools and the LA working together and speaking with one voice to employers (who of course have their own coordinated voice, through the Chamber of Commerce and the LEP).
3) Without an effective LA the school system would be completely unaccountable to the people of Birmingham
There would be no way that the people of Birmingham – the whole community that the Council is elected to represent – could express their views about the state of schooling in the city and the direction that it was taking. Many schools are increasingly less accountable to their own local communities as a result of the reduction in parent governors and the appointment of governors by private chain sponsors. But without an effective LA schools would be completely unaccountable to the whole Birmingham community (which of course funds them through their taxes) for the education of its children and young people.
The ‘Co-operative Partnership’
How is the LA responding to this situation of cuts, loss of schools, and pressure to raise standards? Its main strategy is to attempt to set up a city-wide ‘Co-operative Partnership’ (CP) open to all state schools including academies. (Not to be confused with a Co-operative Society Trust.) The CP would be governed by the schools, though the local authority would play a significant role. A number of other LAs have already set up similar partnerships (for example, Liverpool and Bradford). But in Birmingham, although consultation has been taking place, mainly with headteachers, since last July, the exact structure, composition and functions have still to be agreed.
What is the reason for this delay of almost a year now? The LA says it’s up to the heads to decide, not the LA. Some heads say the proposals aren’t clear enough for them to decide. Others don’t believe a city-wide partnership is necessary.
BCASE calls on schools and the LA to:
1) Get the Cooperative Partnership up and running as soon as possible
Headteachers and school governors have a particular responsibility right now to save the Birmingham school system. They talk a lot about ‘collective moral purpose’. That applies not just to school to school support but to the whole Birmingham school system and the city-wide community it serves.
2) Maximise capacity for supporting ‘school improvement’
The LA in conjunction with the Cooperative Partnership needs to:
a) Carry out an audit of areas of expertise in schools that can be drawn on
b) Establish what and where the main issues for development are, especially inequality.
c) Set up ‘Task Groups’ for each issue comprising teachers/headteachers with relevant expertise. Each Task Group to develop a plan of action..
3) Develop a vision for education which includes but goes beyond ‘school improvement’
What do we want for the education of our children and young people beyond good SATs and GCSE results? The recent report of the Scrutiny Committee into the changing role of the LA found that many headteachers want the LA to have a vision for education. This means not just platitudes that everyone can agree with but a set of values and strategies to translate them into action, with broad professional and popular participation in its formulation.
4) Open up the Co-operative Partnership to all stakeholders in the school system
The current Co-operative Partnership model is dominated by headteachers. There is no mention of any representation of parents, teachers, school unions, community organisations, local communities, councillors, or even school governors. Involving all ‘stakeholders’ in the Co-operative Partnership is essential on the basis of the principle that everyone in the city has a stake in the education of its children and should be represented not just through the ballot-box but directly through representation on its key city-wide policy body, the Co-operative Partnership. It is also essential in order for the LA itself to be able to exercise educational leadership, because to do so it is almost entirely dependent on its ability to influence the schools, and the most powerful source of influence is popular as well as professional support for particular aims and policies by the community of Birmingham.