Talk given at CASE annual conference, Birmingham, 15 November 2014
The Trojan Horse affair has been immensely damaging to Birmingham – to the Muslim community, to schools and to the local authority. We are now in the process of trying to move forward.
There are a number of lessons which we should learn from the Trojan Horse affair so that a similar event cannot arise again. The one I want to talk about is this.
There is general agreement that there were some malpractices of governance in a small number of schools. The blame lies squarely with the Coalition government for creating a situation where governors could act without local accountability. Four of the five schools at the heart of the affair were academies, with no local accountability.
The fifth was a local authority school, but the capacity of the local authority has been decimated by government cuts. In short, the whole local school system is fragmented and uncoordinated, in Birmingham and across the country.
This is an issue that is addressed in points 4 and 5 of the 7 priorities of Reclaiming Education. I want to suggest how we might fill out this picture to provide a reinvigorated, properly resourced, empowered and democratised local school system. Of course, we need a new policy framework at national level too.
The policy document approved at Labour’s annual policy conference in September is called Education and Children. The policy states that ‘We will […] put an end to the fragmented, divisive school system created by this Government.’
The fragmentation is the result of academies and free schools. (I’ll leave aside the question of grammar schools, equally divisive in a different way.) But Education and Children is silent on whether academies and free schools will be incorporated into the local authority system, or if not what their relationship would be.
And Tristram Hunt announced on 14 October 2014:
We want to see a multiplicity of provision – academy chains, single academies, community schools, parent-led academies.
Parent-led academies are just the Coalition’s free schools rebranded, a proposal that did not appear in Labour’s National Policy Forum document.
So in my view we have to step up the argument for a unified system of local state-funded schools including academies and free schools.
We need to remember that the whole case for academies rests on claims that they, and especially sponsored academies, are more effective in raising standards than LA schools. All the accumulated evidence shows that this claim is unfounded when you compare like with like.
The latest evidence is in the NFER Report on Academy performance, published in October.
Attainment progress in sponsored academies compared to similar non-academies is not significantly different over time when the outcome is measured as GCSE points, excluding equivalent qualifications such as BTECs.
The evidence is clear that academies make far greater use of equivalents. When we apply the Wolf criteria, which limits the contribution of non-GCSE qualifications to schools’ scores, to the 2013 results, schools’ results fell on average by 3.8%. But academies fell by 7.4% – almost twice as much. The effect is still greater for academy chains. Several fell by over 10%.
So the case for academies collapses. But we have paid a huge price for this ideologically-driven experiment – the lack of accountability of Academies to their local community as represented by elected local government.
The National Audit Office published a report in October on Academies and maintained schools: Oversight and intervention. It concluded ‘The Department and the Agency do not know enough about school-level governance to identify risks.’
So the first step is the re-creation of fully inclusive local systems of state-funded schools by the re-integration of academies and the integration of free schools. Academies can be brought back in, funding agreements can be rescinded, as David Wolfe the legal expert showed at the CASE conference in 2012.
The second step is to put an end to private sponsor chains controlling schools by appointing the majority of the governors. No state-funded school should be controlled by a private organisation – it’s a form of privatisation.
The Blunkett Review says schools can voluntarily leave chains (p27). But this promise is omitted from the Education and Children document.
In any case, how could they while the chain appoints the majority of governors? It has to be the other way round. Governing bodies of sponsored academies should be re-formed to ensure that they have the same composition as maintained schools.
If a school wants to continue a partnership with an ex-sponsor, as with any external organisation, it should be able to do so, but this does not require any power to be handed over to it from the reconstituted governing body – and let’s see how many of these millionaires and over-paid officials who run chains of academies retain their enthusiasm when they are invited to support schools but not control them.
So, a unified local school system accountable to elected local government. In that, what should the LA’s role be?
Of course, the control of admissions policy and the provision of school places.
And school improvement. It is now largely the responsibility of the schools themselves. But without central coordination and funding it can be patchy, uneven. Some schools are left behind. So there is a vital role for the local authority in identifying schools which need additional support, coordinating and providing direction, and funding it.
But the role of the local authority has to go beyond supporting schools in difficulties and raising test and exam scores. It should also be developing a local vision in a dialogue with schools and communities, and promoting progressive innovation.
There is a history of local authorities playing an important role of visionary educational leadership: Alec Clegg in the West Riding, ILEA developing policies to tackle inequalities of ‘race’ and gender; Birmingham’s enriched experiential curriculum under Tim Brighouse.
To do all this local authorities need power and resources. That requires an end to the massive cuts imposed by central government and a restoration of an adequate level of funding.
I want to stress that this is not about local authorities ‘controlling’ schools, a myth that Mr Gove was particularly fond of, it’s about their capacity to act in the interests of the whole community they are elected to represent in a new partnership with schools.
That leads me to the question of local democracy. Education and Children says:
…a One Nation education system will deliver a radical devolution of power from Whitehall. Labour will empower local communities to have a greater say about education in their area, rather than continue the top-down control approach to schools demonstrated by the current Government.
The question is, what structures and procedures will enable local communities to effectively participate in decision-making in their local school system? On this the policy document is silent.
Instead its focus is on the new position of local Director of School Standards. According to Education and Children the function of the DSS is to ‘hold all schools to account, regardless of structure, for their performance and intervene in poorly performing schools.’ It’s a bit like the Coalition’s Regional Schools Commissioners.
The DSS would be appointed and employed jointly by several LAs in an area. But how will a local authority ‘hold to account’ the DSS? Where does the power really lie? Is the DSS subject to local authority policy, as its employee, or is the DSS in reality the local arm of the DfE, a dictator over local authorities?
The role of the DSS is unnecessary and the proposal should be opposed. All of the DSS’s functions could be carried out by reformed, resourced and democratised local authorities, with oversight by an independent HMI as appropriate.
The Blunkett Review does contain one innovative and radical proposal for widening participation in policy-making: a local Education Panel.
This would include representation from schools in the area, parents and relevant 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.
Schools, parents and the local authority working together on a strategic plan. Membership of the Panel could be widened to include representatives of governors, teachers, school students and – in line with local authority devolution policies – community representatives.
But the idea of local Education Panels has been dropped from the Education and Children policy document.
I think this sort of authority-wide Local Education Forum is the way forward. A public space in each local authority area in which stakeholders can discuss the purposes and content of education and policies can be decided upon.
There is also a case for more local Education Forums, perhaps at neighbourhood level, perhaps in a large rural authority the size of a small town.
Increasingly schools in a local area are working together in clusters and networks. There needs to be a corresponding body which brings together parents, local citizens and community organisations, together with staff and schoolstudents.
Its purposes would be two-fold. One, to harness the energy and expertise of the community to enrich learning in the local schools and build the culture of a local learning community.
Two, to enable the community, as a stakeholder, to participate in local education policy-making along with the professionals. (It would be similar in purpose to the Stakeholder Forum of a Cooperative Society’s multi-school Trust.) It would also elect representatives to the authority-wide Forum.
We in the Birmingham branch of CASE have begun putting forward such an initiative in Birmingham as a way of moving forward after the damaging events of the Trojan Horse affair. It brings together two developments.
One is the idea of a Children’s Zone. A Children’s Zone brings together all the resources in a local area – a neighbourhood, a district – that can support the educational development of children and young people:
- the schools – teachers, governors, parents, children and young people;
- other support agencies;
- local community facilities such as libraries
- local community organisations and groups of every sort, from sports clubs to religious organisations;
- local workplaces and businesses;
- the local authority;
- and, centrally, community members themselves: their knowledge, skills, aspirations, views and aims.
The second development is the big policy debate currently taking place in the city around devolution from the Council House to districts and neighbourhoods, with the aim of enhancing local democracy and empowering communities. At present these policies don’t engage with the school system, but they could.
Bringing the two sets of ideas together places the issue of inclusive participatory governance, including the role of the community, at the centre of the Children’s Zone.
It would create a new local education partnership at the district or neighbourhood level which would be governed by a coordinating body comprising representatives of the various stakeholders, with a key role played by the participating schools, of course, but also effective influence by the local community.
The rationale for a democratised Children’s Zone approach is two-fold: it raises standards, especially in more socially deprived areas, by mobilising the whole community around the education of its children, and it exemplifies grassroots participatory civic democracy.
These developments are not confined to Birmingham. A Children’s Zone approach is being trialled in a number of areas around the country, and many local authorities are embracing devolution.
What is the role of the local authority in relation to the Forums that I have advocated? It would need to resource, actively promote, and engage with them. But public participation in discussion of education policy is largely meaningless without the ability to influence local authority policy, and this means opening up the existing structures and processes of local government – the Cabinet and Scrutiny system – to input and involvement by the Forums.
The result of the Cabinet system has been a profound democratic deficit as power is monopolised by a small minority of councillors. In Birmingham all the power is in the hands of a Cabinet of 8 councillors out of a Labour group of 77.
Cabinets and Scrutiny committees are largely immune to any direct involvement by headteachers, teachers and governors, let alone parents and other citizens.
To democratise the present structures the local council should establish an Education Committee. It should comprise not just councillors but lay members elected from the authority-wide Forum, thus ensuring direct public and professional participation.
This was pioneered by some Labour Councils in the 1970s and 80s. It was an important factor in the effectiveness of these Councils in tackling issues of gender and racial equality.
This is exactly what is needed today to tackle the key issues that councils face in education. The Education Scrutiny Committee should be opened up in a similar way.
Public participation in policy-making in local school systems does not mean intervening in issues which are properly matters of professional judgement. Nor does it imply that public views are inevitably progressive.
In both cases it is a question of deliberation and negotiation between public, professionals and local authorities, and the mobilisation of collective support for progressive policies.
I have tried to outline a vision of what a reinvigorated, properly resourced, empowered and democratised local school system could look like, where a combination of authority-wide Forums, district Forums, a Children’s Zone approach and the opening up of Council committees makes possible a new inclusive and participatory partnership in local school systems.
It’s a vision, I think, which is worth fighting for and is capable of winning widespread support.