White board

White board

Don’t leave schools out of new deals for city regions

Manchester Town Hall. Will education be part of greater devolution? Dave Wood Liverpool Images

It’s 25 years since the abolition of the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA). Its passing marked a turning point: local control over education in Britain has never been the same again. Now plans led by the chancellor, George Osborne, to reinvigorate the idea of “city region” deals outside London, such as the Northern Powerhouse, could offer the chance to bring back some of the local accountability for education that some believe has been stripped out of the system.

What started out in the mid 1960s as a special sub-committee of the Greater London Council (a forerunner to the current Greater London Assembly, but with greater powers), the ILEA was the only directly elected education authority in England. Made up of 13 inner London boroughs, it had responsibility for early years, nursery, primary and secondary education, further education, youth services and lifelong learning across the capital.

Regarded as ground-breaking in terms of the professional development of teachers, resources for children and young people, it even had its own recording studio, a precursor of the now defunct “Teachers TV”. It had its own policies and procedures and was at the forefront of anti-racist and anti-sexist initiatives in education.

The ILEA’s research and data team were also pioneering in education analysis, developing families of schools to support school improvement. In many ways, they were ahead of their time in collecting comparative data that grounded education achievement in the socio-economic context of London’s pupils. Such initiatives became the forerunner of the highly successful and well-regarded London Challenge initiative, which was launched in 2003.

At the ILEA’s core was a commitment to a local, democratic and accountable education system in the interests of all London’s children and young people. In elections to its board of 53 elected members, 44% of the electorate voted: much better than the 15.1% in 2012 elections for police and crime commissioners.

The levels of turn-out for elections to its board of 53 elected members was not huge – 44% of the electorate voted in elections across the 13 inner-London boroughs – but much better than turnout in elections for more recent devolved positions of authority, such as police commissioners.

Localism reined in

The legislation that brought forth the abolition of the ILEA also brought large-scale reform that changed the face of schools across the country. The Education Reform Act 1988 gave individual school governing bodies control and accountability for their own budgets and staff under a system that gave each inner-London borough the powers of a local education authority. Alongside many other changes, it also introduced the National Curriculum, dictating what schools taught.

The writing was on the wall. "Main Block of the County Hall plaque to ILEA" by MRSC via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

More importantly, the 1988 Act signalled a shift in the relationship between local government and Westminster in the way it moved many powers from local to central government. The relationship between central and local government and their relationship with schools, the dynamic has always been a fluid one, altered by respective governments to align with their own political agendas.

Given the backdrop of last year’s independence referendum in Scotland and the prime minister’s ensuing call for greater devolution of powers to local and regional arenas, it is no surprise that the spectre of a Northern Powerhouse as a new city region has reared its head.

Osborne’s plans for city-led devolution have been an early priority for the new Conservative majority government and a Cities Devolution Bill is expected in the Queen’s Speech on May 27. The driving idea behind the Northern Powerhouse is economic: to develop a northern hub capable of generating more jobs, more productivity and more wealth. This is reflected in demands for more city devolution by the Core Cities group of the UK’s 10 biggest cities outside of London.

Tucked behind some of the economy-led debates around devolving power is the notion that these new “city regions” could have responsibility for post-16 education and skills. Such proposals are tied up in the economic argument that skills equal jobs. They build on the idea of local enterprise partnerships, which have not delivered as much growth locally as hoped for. However, there could be the beginning of a move towards a more local sense of accountability over adult education.

Time for a rebalance

A wider issue remains about the extent to which public funding should be accountable to people locally and to what extent local politicians should have some say over local services. This is critical when it comes to schools education since, alongside the NHS, they are one of the key elements of a nationally funded system of public services, paid for by direct taxation.

There has been very little discussion of the rebalancing that is needed under the current status quo to ensure that schools serve their local communities and are accountable to them through a framework that enables democratic control. Local education authorities used to ensure a “national system, locally delivered”. But they were replaced by the last Labour government as part of the children’s services agenda under the Children Act 2004. More recently, under the coalition government, regional schools commissioners were created to bridge the widening chasm between Whitehall and the regions as more schools become autonomous under the academies programme.

A more radical approach has been mooted by organisations such as Compass in its Big Education Inquiry. Focusing on a notion of accountability which is broader than just league tables and published measurement scores, the Big Education Inquiry argued for greater local control over schools and education and a democratic input into local school systems.

Communities need to feel connected to their schools and schools need to be accountable to their communities. The lessons of 25 years ago might shine some light on how we can shape the future of education and re-engage people in the local and national democratic process.

Facts matter. Your tax-deductible donation helps deliver fact-based journalism.