Update: There is now an addendum to this post on the subject of Community Trusts here

On 30 April 2014 the Labour Party published a Review of education structures, functions and the raising of standards for all: Putting Students and Parents First, known for short as the Blunkett Review. On the same date it also published an internal PLP Briefing on the Review: Blunkett Report into school standards: local oversight, challenge and support for all schools. The Review includes a number of issues which are not dealt with in this response, which focuses on the roles of the Director for School Standards, the schools, local authorities and parents and the wider community.

Both documents are quoted in this initial response – quotes are in italics and page numbers refer to the Review unless they stipulate the PLP Briefing. Neither document is paginated so page numbers refer to those on the pdf and word files respectively.

The role of the Director for School Standards

The Director of School Standards will be appointed by local authorities from a list of high quality candidates approved by the Secretary of State for Education (PLP Briefing p3)

The DSS would be responsible for and to several LAs
The presumption would be for Local Authorities to join together to appoint a shared DSS across a local area or sub-region (p9)

He or she would be appointed on a fixed term five-year renewable contract and would be statutorily independent. (p9)

This would ensure coherence, based on City Regions and Local Enterprise Partnership areas, to avoid unnecessary bureaucracy and ensure value for money. (p7)

These areas are much smaller than the 8 regions covered by the Coalition’s schools commissioners. But there are three problems here:
• How is it possible for the DSS to have sufficient knowledge of so many schools?
• What are the implications for local democratic accountability if the area covered is so large?
• How can a local group of LAs hold the DSS to account? Would this require some sort of joint LA committee to be set up?

The DSS is responsible for standards in all schools
The DSS would be responsible for driving up standards in all schools in his or her area, whatever their status. (p9)

This is another difference from the Coalition’s schools commissioners, which only cover academies and free schools.

The DSS is responsible for brokering partnerships
Brokering partnerships where they do not exist… and facilitating cross boundary arrangements to provide support in areas such as special needs, training, careers provision and progression into post-16…(p7)

The DSS must be empowered to broker collaboration within the local area they lead. … The DSS would intervene where unsatisfactory or inadequate collaboration was evident. (p10)

The DSS is responsible for planning school places and setting up new schools
The Review says that:
Local authorities remain responsible for place planning…. Responsible for identifying the shortfall in places for children in their locality, and for recommending where such additional places should be established. (p37)

But the decision about the provision of places lies with the DSS, not the LA:
The DSS would … be responsible for the planning of additional places using local authority data and intelligence (p9)

The process for setting up new schools would be competitive bidding, organised by the DSS:

The DSS would oversee the process of competition for new schools (p9)

Process for the commissioning of new schools and places. … The DSS would initiate a process of consultation on the opening of new schools [or expansion]
… A light touch consultation… To identify potential solutions in line with the strategic plan for education in the area. … The DSS would invite proposals from those with an interest in providing a new facility. (p14)

The following bodies would be able to bid:
All trusts (including community trusts), partnerships, chains, parent groups, diocesan authorities and social entrepreneurs would be able to put forward proposals. (p38)

Notably, this list doesn’t include local authorities. In contrast, the PLP Briefing says explicitly:
David recommends allowing Local Authorities to once again bid to open new community schools, scrapping Michael Gove’s policy which only allows new academies or Free Schools. (p3)

Academy sponsors can bid to open new schools as academies:
All providers can come forward with bids in competitions for opening new schools. Where it makes
sense that this is an academy provider, DSS will judge for that to happen. (PLP Briefing p6)

And so can groups of parents:
Where there is a need for additional school places, and where this cannot be met through investment in existing schools (or if local people do not wish them to be met through the existing schools), it is perfectly reasonable to support parents in coming together, not only to demand that to help plan and play a key role in running a new school. (p37)

This is simply the Coalition’s free schools rebranded as, in Hunt’s words in October 2013, ‘parent-led academies’. And ones run by ‘social entrepreneurs’ would also be no different from some Coalition free schools.

Furthermore, the DSS can also hand over a school regarded by parents as inadequate to a sponsor:
If sufficient parents are dissatisfied with the general standard of education and the choice available within a locality, it would not be ruled out that, through the office of the DSS, new sponsors would be invited to make proposals for the regeneration of one or more schools in the area as an alternative to enforced academy status. (p38)

Presumably the sponsor would be an academy sponsor and the school would become an academy if it wasn’t already. This seems like a continuation of the policy of forced academisation, not, as the Review claims, an alternative to it.

The DSS is responsible for teacher training in schools
It would be expected that all Directors of School Standards in a definable region would work together to establish sensible planning to enhance the effectiveness of provision on a number of functions. First, brokering appropriate teacher training provision, such as full coverage of teaching schools alliances. (p19)

The DSS is responsible for special needs provision
It would be expected that all Directors of School Standards in a definable region would work together to establish… coherent and comprehensive provision for special needs, including responsibility for ensuring sufficient capacity to allow access to dedicated residential, day and peripatetic resource. (p19)

The resources of the DSS
What resources would the DSS have to carry out all these tasks? According to the PLP Briefing:
Funding will come from the DfE. Currently, vast amounts are spent propping up Michael Gove’s system of centralised decision-making – with a bloated EFA, new regional commissioners, an army of academy brokers, and teams of civil servants pushing through Free Schools. None of which are driving the rise in standards we need to see. So we will devolve funding and spend it more effectively at the local level. (p5)

The DSS would not have the resources her or himself to implement policies:
The new post would have a small back-up secretariat providing only the most essential administrative support (p9)

The implementation of tasks, especially school improvement, would be delegated to LAs, which would in turn delegate them to schools, and presumably the funding would be used by them to fund collaborative support.

The role of LAs

LAs would collect and provide data to the DSS
Using the scrutiny role, key to ensuring information is readily available in the public arena, they would work with the director of School Standards to ensure local intelligence was at the forefront. (p7)

… It is believed that the role of the local authority is to identify and make available the necessary information (analyse and publish data) so that there can be transparency on what is and is not working. This means being able to identify where failure exists, to be the voice and advocate for parents and children and to use their scrutiny function effectively. (p24)

LAs would foster collaboration between schools
There should be a public duty on local authorities to demonstrate (for inspection purposes) appropriate procedures for fostering collaboration between schools. Similarly all schools, whatever their status, and other providers of education would be under a duty to demonstrate collaborative ventures or the drawing down on expertise from other parts of the education system (to be reported upon by OFSTED). The DSS would intervene where unsatisfactory or inadequate collaboration was evident. (pp25-6)

This duty to promote partnership would replace the ‘command’ approach of the Secretary of State to convert the status of school, rather than to improve the standard of education available. (p26)

If this means that Labour would abolish the policy of forced academisation it is very much to be welcomed.

Local democracy and participation: the roles of the DSS and the LA

In two places the Review makes general claims for community engagement in policy-making:
Instead of believing that we have to do our ‘politics’ from the top-down, we can engage people in making a difference themselves in their immediate connection with decision-taking. (p43)

… genuine engagement is part of a movement for change, embracing parents and family members, the wider community and representing (not just themselves but wider interests) governors and trust members (p43)

But the question is, what structures and procedures would ensure that parents and communities were able to express their views and interests and effectively influence policy?

One opportunity is the following:
Parents would have the right to request intervention from the DSS where concerns had not been adequately address. Clearly, OFSTED inspection reports and performance against floor targets would be key, but discretion would be in the hands of the new DSS. (p24)

This is a consumerist democracy model, where parents can complain after experiencing poor service but have no role in the design and production of the service.

LAs would be advocates for pupils and parents
Local Authorities, retaining key functions, would place emphasis on being the voice or advocate for pupils and parents. (p7)

They would have a public duty to represent the interests of pupils and parents. (p12)

But again the question is, what structures and procedures would ensure that parents (and schoolstudents) were able to express their views and interests and effectively influence policy?

Local Education Panel
There is one innovative proposal in the Review for participation in policy-making:
there would be a local Education Panel. This would include representation from schools in the area, parents and relevance Local Authority representatives, who would work with the DSS on the development of a long-term strategic plan for education, ensure commissioning decisions are taken in line with that plan and agree the budget proposed by the DSS.’ (p10)

This is the most radically progressive policy in the Review. It offers the opportunity for genuine joint participation in strategic policy-making by schools, parents and LAs. Pressure could be put on Local Education Panels to widen their membership to include representatives of governors, school unions, and the local community (perhaps in the context of local authority devolution policies).

One crucial policy issue is the local education budget. According to the Review:
a local Education Panel …would work with the DSS on the development of a long-term strategic plan for education [and would agree] the budget proposed by the DSS. (p25)

This would include funding for academies:
Funding of all schools should, for administrative purposes, be through the relevant local authority (or local authorities), given the impossible pressures which will arise on the education funding agency in the changed landscape of freestanding schools. (p30)

Academy funding agreements would be reduced to a maximum of 5 years (p12).

Citywide Learning Bodies
There is another proposal in the Review which offers the opportunity for participation, and which could complement the Local Education Panel. It refers to the local arrangements (sometimes known as borough or citywide learning bodies or forums) with whom the DSS would work closely’ (p10)

These are authority-wide partnerships open to all schools, including academies, which have been set up in a number of areas in order to coordinate and promote collaboration for school improvement. The problem with them is that virtually all of them are run exclusively by headteachers, together with some minority LA representation, but with no representatives of other stakeholders in the school system such as parents, governors, teachers and the community (see Hatcher 2014).

However, the Review recommends Local Authorities to encourage the creation of Parent Teacher Associations. (p16). And it continues by saying that PTAs:
could work alongside local governor associations to facilitate participation in Citywide Learning Bodies, assessment panels and the like. Whilst further consideration needs to be given to this, not least in ensuring that those engaged more widely in decision-making procedures are truly representative, enhanced democracy at local level does entail finding ways of encouraging civic participation. (p17)

This would be a significant step in democratising the Citywide Learning Bodies, transforming them from managerial partnerships controlled by headteachers into more representative and participatory bodies, and opening the door to wider public and professional involvement as well.

Annual forum meetings
On an annual basis, the DSS would invite locally elected representatives, including MPs, to a presentation of the annual report where questions could be raised and appropriate debate could take place. It is also envisaged that governors, trustees and parent groups be represented at this forum. (p10)

Though the forum meetings are quite participatory in terms of attendance they look like they would be dominated by the DSS, with little opportunity to present alternative strategic perspectives and take decisions, but the experience of groups participating in the Local Education Panels and the Citywide Learning Bodies could transform the annual forum meeting into a much more participatory event.

What is the power relationship between the DSS, the LA and other stakeholder participants?

The Local Education Panel and the annual forum meeting exemplify the fundamental issue running all through the Review: what is the power relationship between the DSS, the LA and other stakeholder participants? According to the PLP Briefing, Labour will devolve powers to local areas (p1). But in the local area what will be the distribution of power? As we have seen, on a whole range of issues it is the DSS who decides. As the PLP Briefing bluntly says: The DSS will be …responsible for delivering the education strategy for that area. (p2).

But the DSS is an employee of the LAs who have appointed her or him. Is she or he therefore subject to the decision of elected local government? If so, this would represent a fundamental break with the centralised policies of the Coalition and the reinvigoration of local councils’ role in education.

The PLP Briefing says the role and independence of the DSS will be laid out in statute (p2). The Review compares the role of the DSS to that of the local Director of Public Health, also statutorily defined:
This [DSS] post would be reflective of the statutory independent powers historically exercised by the local Director of Public Health. Appointed locally, accountable locally and free to bring both pressure and support wherever needed. (p7)

It also says:
It would provide the kind of objective voice that historically was offered by the local Director of Public Health, rather than a return to the former Chief Education Officer position and the structures that underpinned it. (p24)

The facts, as I understand them, don’t bear out this proposed contrast between the roles of the DSS and the CEO. I assume that ‘historically’ refers to the role of local authority Medical Officers of Health (they weren’t called Directors of Public Health) from the latter years of the 19th century until 1974, when public health was subsumed into the NHS and their role was abolished. When public health was transferred back to local authorities in 2012 it became the statutorily defined responsibility of the Director of Public Health, who is a senior LA employee accountable to the local council: a parallel role to that which CEOs had played.

The status of schools

There is one more welcome break from Coalition policies in the Review: Schools are free to move between partnership, federation, trust or Academy chain (p11)

And again: freedom for schools to choose to join Trusts, Federations or Sponsor Chains but also to be able to leave them. (p27)

It is also proposed that chains may be willing to relinquish some of their schools:
…. For sponsors, with the agreement of the secretary of state with whom the funding agreement rests and the support of the office of the schools Commissioner, to ‘float off’ groups of schools or nurture new sponsors… (p11)
It is difficult to see why chains should want to divest themselves of some of their schools, but presumably if the schools want to become independent the chains cannot stop them.

The Community Trust model
Community schools not currently part of a federation, multi Academy or sponsor framework should be encouraged to join a partnership, including through the creation of our Community Trust model. (p10)

Nowhere does the Review or the PLP Briefing explain what the Community Trust model is, but the Review compares it to arm’s-length management organisations for social housing (p26). These are not-for-profit companies that provide housing services on behalf of a local authority. They are owned by local authorities and operate under a management agreement between the authority and the organisation.

There is a general trend towards schools working together in various forms of collaborative arrangements. The Community Trust model sounds no different than the sort of Trust that many schools have set up to work together, including Co-operative Society Trusts. The only concern is whether a Labour government would put undue pressure on schools to form Trusts if they chose not to.

Some questions…

There is a fundamental three-way tension at the heart of the Review. It is between the role of the Director for School Standards, the role of the Local Authority, and the role of other stakeholders in the local school system, including parents and the wider community. The DSS is responsible for driving ‘school improvement’ and other associated tasks, and could become the new and dominant local enforcer of government policy. But the DSS is dependent on LAs and schools implementing her or his policies, and is also the employee of a local group of LAs. Where does power lie? To what extent will LAs attempt to make a DSS accountable to them, and if they do how successful will they be? And what resources will LAs and schools have to fund collaborative support? In addition, the Review proposes some initiatives which would offer opportunities for some participation in local education policy-making by parents, governors, and even the wider community. Will they be taken advantage of, and if so how much influence will these stakeholders have?

One possible outcome of at least many issues, and no doubt the one desired by Labour, is the emergence of consensus between the policy actors. But if tensions surface, what will the balance of power be and how will an unstable settlement be stabilised? Will a Labour government be forced to assign greater bureaucratic powers to the DSS to assert central control? Will we see a strengthening of the role of LAs? Will the apparent potential opportunities for greater public and professional participation in local school systems lead to challenges to the education policies of a Labour government which embody much continuity with those of the Coalition, ranging from austerity budgets to support for academy chains?

…and some answers

• The role of the DSS is unnecessary and should be opposed. All of the DSS’s functions could be carried out by reformed, resourced and democratised Local Authorities (or partnerships of LAs in the case of small LAs), with oversight by an independent HMI as appropriate.

• The continuation of any distinct status for academies, and in particular the continuation of control of schools by academy chains run by private organisations, should be opposed.

• Adequate funding must be made available to LAs and schools to support comprehensive local systems of school collaboration and support.

• The idea of Local Education Panels should be supported as potentially providing a structure for local democratic participation by all relevant stakeholders in local strategic education policy-making. Local Citywide Learning Bodies should be opened up to participation in a similar way.

If the Review’s proposals for Directors of School Standards are implemented by a Labour government, the question is, where does power lie, with the DSS or with local elected government and the stakeholders in the local school system?

• Local Authorities must ensure that Directors of School Standards, who are employees of LAs, act as officers of LAs, responsible for carrying out LA policy, not as dictators over LAs. To achieve this LAs should establish powerful Education Committees with lay participation as well as elected members.

• In the case of DsSS covering more than one LA the LAs should establish a joint Education Committee tasked with ensuring that the DSS is directed by and responsible to it.

• LAs should establish Local Education Panels, properly resourced and democratically structured to ensure the maximum participation of parents, teachers, heads, governors, elected representatives of the wider community and other stakeholders, capable of developing a strategic plan for the local education system and shaping the work of the DSS, who should be accountable to it.

Richard Hatcher
4 May 2014

Hatcher R (2014) Local authorities and the school system: the new authority-wide partnerships. Educational Management Administration and Leadership 42: 3, 355-371.



4 thoughts on “Where would power lie in the local school system under Labour? An initial response to the Blunkett Review

  1. Pingback: The Blunkett Review confuses very different meanings of Community Trusts | Birmingham Campaign For State Education

  2. Pingback: The Blunkett review and education’s democratic deficit | Eddie Playfair

  3. Pingback: Democratising the local school system | RESPECTING CHILDREN & YOUNG PEOPLE

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