Could the Middle Tier look like THIS?

By Laura McInerney (Policy Development Partner) and Matt Hood (guest writer).

Yesterday Laura and I outlined the differences between Labour’s Director of School Standards and the Coalition’s Regional School Commissioners – both of which are solutions to The Big Middle Tier Problem (or “who should watch over schools to make sure they aren’t rubbish?”). Today we promised to reveal what we had been trying to persuade people ought to be the middle.

Sadly, the solutions presented by both sides so far fudge the real issues of a missing middle tier because they are based on beliefs about each side thinks ought solve the problem, rather than based on the actual problems.  Hence, the Coalition’s approach reflects its dislike of local authorities, with RSCs basically ignoring them and local authorities frozen out of running schools, place planning, etc.  Labour’s vision shows their preference for bringing local authorities but then blurs some lines of independence and what a Director of School Standards is (are they just local authorities over bigger areas?!).

So let’s step back why do we need commissioners in the first place?

We need because someone needs to:

  • Decide if new schools should open or existing ones expand
  • Broker support if a school is in need of intervention (because of financial, teaching, leadership problems, etc).
  • Change the management of a school if its performance has taken a turn for the worse
  • Close a school where there are performance or falling roll issues

Local authorities could do this but if you are both the person responsible for a school, and its improvement, and calling it quits – that’s a conflict of interest. Also, not every local authority needs to do these things. Some have only a few schools and are quite limited in what they can do. And, finally, academies have an agreement that says they don’t need to listen to local authorities.

However, there are some things local authorities can do really well:

  • Run schools. Some LAs are brilliant at this. They offer helpful services at a reasonable price and support their schools as well as even the top academy chains.
  • Know the demography of the area – what is the likely place demand, what are the available areas of land for building on, etc.
  • Co-ordinate provision from other parts of the authority, e.g. transport, health services, etc.

Hence, after Laura sent me her picture (genuinely scribbled on paper) we spent a few more weeks hammering it out until we got to this diagram. I get that it looks a bit mad and is hard to see on here, but if you’re interested it’s worth downloading to look at further. Otherwise, skip down to read “the essential outline”

The Essentials

1.Local authorities would continue running their schools as arms-length ‘local authority trusts’. Labour also seem to agree with this and call them Community Trusts. But under our model, however, it wouldn’t be optional. If the LA wants to carry on running schools it would create the trust (much like happened with social housing trusts in the past) and be done with it. If they don’t want to be a trust, they need to find someone else to take the schools.

2. Regional School Commissioners would be appointed by the Department for Education and be responsible for the opening, monitoring and closing/transferring of all schools. We are sticking with a DfE appointment as we think independence is vital. We would get rid of HTBs because they compromise the independence.

3. RSCs would take annual submissions from the LEA on place-planning need in the area. This which then be used to grant academy extensions and/or new schools.

4. RSCs will use Ofsted, performance data and annual accounts to monitor schools. RSCs can issue pre-warning notices.

5. If a school is in trouble, a six-month target is given for improvement by the RSC with a range of options for support offered by other chains/schools etc (remember: LA ‘trusts’ can offer services too).

6. After six months, if improvement is unacceptable the RSC brokers a chain transfer. The new chain is given two years to improve the school.

7. After two years if the school has not sufficiently improved then steps will be taken to merge the school with a more successful one, or to wind down its operations by no longer accepting new pupils into the school. A new school provider will be found to operate a school for the new intake.

8. Local authorities retain ‘strategic’ oversight and can feed information to RSCs for opening, monitoring and closing. On admissions, transport and other social services the LA has a leading role.

On ‘democratic accountability’

When discussing this with people a common then is that there needs to be local ‘democratic accountability’ for schools. I.e. if schools are bad in a place then someone should be ‘vote-outable’. We are sceptical that this is really how local politics works and we also don’t think parents want to wait up to four years to vote someone out when their child is not getting a good enough education.

Hence, we feel local democracy would be better served by:

1. Having councillors act as ‘advocates’ for parent. As they will no longer need to ‘defend local schools’ they can operate on behalf of their constituents, rather than on behalf of the school. They could then fairly help parents with admissions, accessing any required additional resources and – where parents are unhappy – help guide them them through a national ‘complaints pathway’ which leads from academy headteacher, to governing body, to regional commissioner, to national school commissioner. This could be an online system with an ombudsman with annual reports published of complaints against trusts and their outcomes. If councillors do not fulfil this role, then it would be fair for people to vote them out!

2. Allow parents to ‘trigger’ academy trust reviews at which the trigger group can put forward evidence as to why the school ought to move trusts. This allows for greater flexibility in the system (and is similar to a recommendation in the Blunkett review).

3. Completely transparent processes for opening and closing schools, and the selection of academy trusts to run a school. This includes proper consultation, local hearings (as with planning laws), and all decisions made in public with full explanation of how evidence has been accounted for and decided.

Why do we think this model would work work?

It ensures the best provider operates schools. We don’t care who  runs schools, just that they run them well and to the law. Excellent local authorities ought to be allowed back in the game, this helps that happen.

It gives local authorities a role in strategy and local councillors a vital role as advocates, but relieves these groups from defending bad schools. Local councillors cannot easily support closing a school even when it is the right thing to do. It is sometimes equally difficult for local authorities if they are the ones leading turnaround efforts. Hence, schools have too often limped on. Our model plays to local authority strengths of contextual knowledge and gives councillors back the ability to truly represent their constituents.   

It makes sense in a data and information-rich era to share information and have commissioners operate across broader areas. At one time, it was difficult even watching all the schools in one small area. But we are now in a situation where commissioners can access good data about schools, quickly email or call relevant individuals, hold group meetings with people from different parts of the country via skype. In that context having 100-odd education ‘bureaus’ managing schools in umpteen different ways is a, when you think about it, quite chaotic. There still needs to be human interaction, local knowledge, etc, but our model enables that while also herding parts of the system gone awry.

The Really Big Question

The one thing we haven’t said is how many Commissioners there should be! Being honest, Laura wanted one (based in a big department in Coventry with underlings managing each of the 8 commissioner regions). I initially agreed with the Blunkett review on having ‘sub-regional’ commissioners but Laura kept pointing out that few areas have someone with the capacity to manage this job – and many simply won’t need someone to do it that often.

As a compromise, sticking with 8 RSCs at first seems sensible. They’re already hired, and if LA trusts were created they would automatically fit into their remit anyway. Also, it’s easier to start with fewer then recruit more if needed than disbanding ones if it turns out you’ve overshot.

Hence, we would stick with the RSC job description as is, but blend in local authorities via Community Trusts and be very clear about who was responsible for what parts of the school system as described above.

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4 thoughts on “Could the Middle Tier look like THIS?

  1. Hi Matt. I like the methodology behind your and Laura’s approach and the diagram – I’m a big fan of diagrams that condense thinking down into simple arguments and I realise this is a complex one. My own line of thought has developed into what I call Localised Strategic Education Partnerships or LSEPs. There is no one single model for these but the main premise is that there is a localised strategy linked to improving post 17 outcomes (post 18 from 2015) – plenty of educational Community Trusts would and do take such an approach. Clearly types of schools and whether they operate effectively is part of the landscape, but I don’t think you can isolate this from the purposes of education, which I believe need to be agreed at a localised level with some core global values. The more sub-regions you have, the better you may be able to capture this aspect within the system.

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