We must end schools being run by contract – it’s fragmenting the education system

Time for fresh thinking. Nick Ansell/PA Wire

The debate about how to build a sound, sustainable system of governance for English schools out of the disarray that the coalition government will bequeath to its successor is gaining momentum. The present situation simply isn’t viable.

The Conservatives have just unveiled new manifesto proposals that would give more power to eight existing regional school commissioners in an effort to react more quickly to failing schools. Although these commissioners currently only have oversight of academies and free schools, the Conservatives have suggested they could be given powers to intervene in all state-maintained schools that are deemed as inadequate by schools inspectorate Ofsted.

It seems that some recent proposals put forward in a report by the left-leaning think tank the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR), which attempted to chart a path through the school governance minefield, are already gaining political traction. The report is likely to be given close attention by whichever party, or combination of parties, forms the next government.

But as ways are sought to save this disintegrating school system, we should focus first and foremost on the sudden and dramatic growth of school governance by contract and aim to bring it to an end.

‘Whole system’ approach

Although the growth in school autonomy is given a cautious welcome in the IPPR report, it identifies a range of familiar problems with the current fragmented system of state-maintained schools, academies and free schools, which all receive public funding. These include over-centralisation, inadequate oversight, complex and unfair admission processes and patchy provision of school support networks.

The way forward, says the IPPR report, is to develop a “whole system” approach to schooling, built around five key elements. Schools would have similar powers to their existing ones but more would be done to promote collaborative activity between schools and there would be regional challenge programmes modelled on the London Challenge, a policy that worked to boost attainment in London’s schools.

Local authorities would have strong powers over planning the number of available school places, admissions and provision for vulnerable children. Groups of authorities would jointly appoint a school commissioner who would have strategic oversight of all schools, power to commission and decommission schools and to broker a change of provider.

A national regulator would act as a court of appeal against decisions of the school commissioners. The central government would then set the broad framework including the core curriculum, the level of public funding and would monitor overall standards.

Legal contract

Under the report’s proposals, it appears that all publicly funded schools, whether academies or state schools, would be run by legal contract – a massive extension of a process that, paradoxically, the report says needs to be reviewed. At present, academies and free schools operate on the basis of a seven-year “funding agreement” and the IPPR’s proposed commissioners would seemingly be expected to apply this approach to all schools under the terms of their remit.

The authors argue that their ideas about “whole system reform” are supported by international evidence, for example from Canada, but most comparable countries don’t run their school systems via legal contracts, nor do they emphasise the need for a diversity of school providers.

Yet a proper “whole system” approach to school governance should ensure all publicly funded schools have a similar legal status based on the principles of public, not contract law. This would involve phasing out the system of funding agreements as contracts come up for renewal and replacing it by a model such as that of the Trust School.

This model, introduced by the Labour government in 2006, has been widely taken up, for example by hundreds of Co-operative schools. The schools are maintained by a local authority and are supported by a charitable trust. This allows for plenty of autonomy, promotes collaborative structures and enables external partners to be involved in governance and leadership.

Beefed-up commissioners

One of the key proposals from the IPPR is for an extra tier of local government built around more local and regional school commissioners. This has distinct echoes of the plan for sub-regional “directors of school standards” in report prepared for Labour by former secretary of state for education David Blunkett earlier this year.

But the IPPR’s authors, Rick Muir and Jonathan Clifton, have put much more detail on their ideas than Blunkett did. Under their scheme, there would be many more commissioners than the existing eight, and they would govern all schools, academies or not.

But there are significant problems with their approach. First it introduces another layer of what its opponents would castigate as wasteful bureaucracy. Second a city-wide or sub-regional approach could be seen by parents, teachers and local communities as more remote than existing oversight by local authorities.

Competition still driving force

Most significant are the tensions built into the very idea of “commissioner” which is currently so fashionable in education. Increasingly it seems to signify someone charged with promoting a competitive market in the supply of schools through the process of commissioning.

Among the duties of its new-style commissioners, the IPPR proposes that they should ensure a diversity of providers, run competitions for new schools where a need has been identified and follow agreed and transparent procurement processes. The authors don’t seriously consider whether diversity of providers is in the public interest or even wanted by parents, teachers or communities. Nor do they consider the skills or capacity commissioners would need to operate robust procurement processes, which have often proved beyond the means of central government.

In fact in the IIPR’s plan it seems competition would still be the system’s motor, in spite of the lack of evidence of its beneficial effects on educational quality and the likelihood that it would sustain the fragmentation and incoherence that are the hallmarks of the current system.