The thorny issue of what democracy is, what it’s not and whether it is an appropriate system for government has been at the top of the agenda at the start of 2015. At the same time, we are in the lead-up to what’s likely to be a hard-fought and very unpredictable general election campaign.
Central to both are questions around the relationships between local and central government, the delivery of public services funded through taxation and how we create a modern economy for the 21st century.
It is an opportune moment to think about how our schools are run, how and to whom they are accountable – and how those relationships between central and local governments play out across the classrooms in our country. This is a peculiarly English question: in the rest of the UK, devolved governments have not adopted many of the reforms introduced in England by the former education secretary Michael Gove, such as free schools. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland continue to operate local authorities that have a close relationship with their schools.
The English school system now has a range of different organisations, structures and forms of accountability with sometimes confused systems of democratic control. The current government has intentionally expanded the academies programme, establishing independent maintained schools outside the remit of local authorities and therefore outside of local government.
Such schools – including free schools – although “independent” of local government, are under the remit of the department for education in Westminster. Some of these schools are “run” by external not-for-profit organisations such as CfBT Education Trust or United Learning while others are collections of schools led by schools themselves. Under the academies and free school programme, these schools report to the Department for Education and to central government directly.
While this may give some autonomy at the level of individual schools, this does raise issues for their relationship to the local and regional community and the degree to which they are accountable to local people. It cannot be an effective way of running a national education system with thousands of schools reporting directly to the central government’s civil service.
Even Gove recognised that running a plethora of schools with different governance and management and accountability arrangements direct from Whitehall may have its difficulties. As a result, he created six Regional Schools Commissioners working between central government and individual schools.
Schools forming partnerships
Schools both in and outside the remit of local authorities have come together in various different partnerships and associations in the wake of the academies programme and the ensuing reduction of funding to local government that has followed. This provides them a means of support and collaboration – enabling them to share good practice in a schools-led system and to attract external funding such as that from the Education Endowment Foundation. Teaching school alliances, multi-academy trusts, umbrella trusts and a range of informal and formal collaborations are all ways in which schools continue to work together.
But although this is testimony to the skills of their headteachers and staff, there are wider issues about the delivery of our publicly funded education system and how this should be accountable to the local community and wider region. The debate about English “devolution” resulting from the Scottish referendum and recently highlighted with the call by two Liberal Democrat MPs for “mini-parliaments”, shows that there is an appetite to look again at the relationships between what gets decided by central government and how that is then made accountable at local level.
Key election questions
Events such as the Trojan Horse episode in Birmingham and more recent issues around Tower Hamlets, have raised issues about the governance of schools and the limited ability of local government to intervene in schools which are “independent”.
This is not merely about the governance of schools. It reflects a wider issue about who is responsible for our schools system and how we can strategically deliver a national education. Fundamental to this is the ability to have enough school places to educate our children and young people – a power which is vested in local authorities. Yet they cannot open new schools since all new schools must be academies or free schools.
This will raise some key questions for politicians during the election campaign about how our school system is run and delivered. The Lib Dems and the Green Party are calling for greater accountability of schools at a local level. On the other side, the Conservatives and UKIP argue for a more school-led system, outside of local authority control. Despite their support for more devolved powers to a English system of government, these politicians see education as outside of that remit.
Labour’s position – set out in a policy paper Education and Children – hints that they may seek to bring in “local oversight” of academies and free schools. But as with all elections, the devil will be in the detail and the detail won’t play out until after the campaign is fought and won.