Does England’s education system need more devolution?

Let’s do this democratically. Andrew Yates/PA Wire

Devolving power to English regions and cities could offer a real chance to introduce more local oversight of the way academies and free schools are being managed.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have strong local authorities working in partnership with schools under a devolved system of local accountability.

But England has a centralised system with decisions made by the cabinet minister, effectively making Nicky Morgan the secretary of state for English education. Nowhere is this centralisation clearer than in the case of academies and free schools and the decision on where they should be opened.

Multi-academy trusts set up as companies funded through the public purse show little transparency about how they spend their money and what they spend it on, according to a research report prepared for the Education Select Committee.

These concerns around conflict of interests, financial mismanagement and school failure sit alongside some wider issues around how governance works within the academy and free school sector. The Trojan Horse scandal over the influence of extremist ideology in Birmingham schools has thrown the role of school governors into stark relief. As the researchers highlighted in their report: “The governance of many trusts remains problematic, with too much executive influence and an inappropriate focus on small governing bodies.”

No space for local democracy

In many ways the central issue here is not what decisions are being made by schools, but the fact that there is no space for local intervention, local accountability and local democracy. In the fragmented English education system that we have, the emphasis on a “self-improving system” alongside a “school-led” model is frequently articulated as if there is little or no need for any local oversight or local accountability.

My colleague Richard Riddell’s recent work interviewing secondary headteachers on this issue, to be presented at the British Educational Research Association conference, has shown that they regard local authorities as “largely irrelevant”.

It’s just not Finnish

The idea that the English education system, with more than 25,000 schools, can be run directly from the Department for Education with no local intermediary seems to be a miscalculation. Nor does it reflect the structures that those education systems rated as outstanding have put in place.

Finland, which consistently outperforms England in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) league tables, runs an education system that is completely state funded, has no academy-type schools, starts children in formal schooling at a later age and has a national system with local implementation and oversight.

A report from the Confederation of British Industry, First Steps, showcases Finland as a model of an education system that delivers outstanding results both for its children and for the economy. It calculates that if we could raise our performance to match Finnish schools, a further £8 trillion could be added to GDP over the lifetime of a child born today.

Return power to local authorities

So will we see a renaissance in demands for some form of role for the local in the national English education system?

Organisations such as the think-tank Compass have already started the call for the creation of “a democratic middle tier” in the way schools are run in England. A review by the former Labour education secretary David Blunkett published in April highlighted the current “absence of transparency” in the English system.

Blunkett pointed to a new role for local authorities as the voice or advocate for children and young people within a wider framework of local accountability building on local enterprise partnerships and city regions.

Regional commissioners

The recognition that some local oversight is needed might be at the heart of the decision by Michael Gove, the former education secretary, to appoint eight regional school commissioners responsible for oversight of academies and free schools in England.

Although the appointees have local accountability to an elected board of outstanding head teachers, their existence points to a growing recognition that you can’t run schools directly from Whitehall. But such commissioners aren’t by any means democratically accountable – nor can they be seen as a counterbalance to a system run by the centre.

The ideas that are bubbling around the political ether about greater autonomy for local government and more devolution to areas of England may create a demand to look again at the fragmented English education system and rebalance it away from central control.