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Yesterday I spoke at the SOLACE conference for Local Authority Chief Executives in York. I was asked to speak on what role remains for councils in education?  with DfE's Director General for infrastructure and funding Andrew McCully and Stephen Adamson from the National Governors Association. It was a chance for me to consolidate my thinking from a number of recent related projects we've been involved with.

 The conversation with Chief Executives was far more lively, challenging and optimistic than I had feared it might be, partly thanks to a refreshingly open approach from Andrew and enthusiastic chairing from Mark Rogers, Chief Executive of Solihull MBC. They were especially taken with my 'cantonisation of education' idea. So, although I am guessing that 'just blogging a speech' is one of the seven deadly blogging sins, that's what I am going to do.

'First, a quick observation from this week. You’ll have seen the OECD league tables on skills for 16-24 year olds. England did very poorly in literacy and maths, prompting varying analyses of who was to blame. The skills minister Matthew Hancock called these young people ‘New Labour’s babies’, putting the blame firmly at door of the last government’s dumbing down processes. Finnish expert Pasi Sahlberg put England and the US’ poor performance down to the GERM -  the Global Education Reform Movement.

Some blamed the top down approach of the old National Strategies, others trendy teachers and their compliant, reactionary unions. However, so far I haven’t heard anybody blame local authorities. There is almost an acceptance that, over the last 20 years, local authorities have been irrelevant to the performance of young people. I’d question this in two ways.

First, I firmly believe that our schools are  better than ever, and outcomes for young people have genuinely improved in the last two decades, although it is clear that other nations have improved far faster. And second, although heroic improvements from single heroic schools are part of this success, in any part of England, from London to Gloucestershire to Greater Manchester, where areas- wide performance has improved, Local Authorities have been part of the story.

'So, who am I to tell you what your role should be? I guess I bring a number of perspectives to this, partly from my professional history, as a teacher who started my career in a Local Authority pool, and ended it in a Grant Maintained school. Then, when I worked at the IPPR, I remember Andrew Adonis being repeatedly shocked to visit schools in small Local Authorities which the (normally long-standing) directors of education had never visited. I worked for a national creativity project where I saw how many authorities, despite being told to ‘commission, not deliver’, were clinging on to delivery roles and often petty power relationships with schools. But I was also inspired during this time by the historic work of Alec Clegg and the way he had wielded his local power to provide incredible arts opportunities for young people, and other more modern examples, such as in Gateshead.

'At the RSA, We’ve recently published three relevant reports: on the middle tier, our academies commission, and our report on education in Suffolk, which is leading to further work with local authorities. This week, I’ve been helping our new Chairman Vikki Heywood to write a speech, and have been delving into RSA’s history. As well as finding out that the RSA was the place where a new chimney sweep was invented so that kids didn’t have to go up them, and that we were one of the first advocates for education for girls, we also, a couple of hundred years ago, recommended that England needed a Department of Education.

Two good ideas out of three isn’t bad! And I am not going to now recommend the abolition of the DfE. But, in asking questions about the role of local government, I think we need to return to fundamental questions about the role of national government in education and what role the DfE itself should play going forward.

'I am not trying to criticise the performance of the DfE. I think that Andrew and others do fantastic work, often in the face of meandering ministerial whims. We deal with academy brokers, and over the last few years the quality of their thinking and depth of local knowledge has improved significantly. But even when they do their job well, we can still ask whether this is an appropriate role to hold nationally. In some conversations, the old cliché about ‘hearing a bedpan falling in Whitehall’ springs to mind.

'If we generally go with the principle of subsidiarity, or what the Learning Trust in Hackney calls ‘maximum delegation', the burden of proof lies nationally, for the DfE to justify the power they retain, whether for intrinsic reasons of democracy, or instrumental reasons of performance. For instance, there is an intrinsic rationale for a small national curriculum which determines some of what our children learn at a national level. Similarly, I think it is crucial that there is a national admissions code, created and monitored and partly enforced centrally, but made effective through local relationship-building. Our report on in year admissions highlighted some excellent local authority-led responses to the new code.

'However, at the same time, there are good intrinsic reasons why some power should be held locally, mediated by local politicians. And in terms of instrumentalism, I think that the international evidence on systemic school improvement, whether from Finland, Singapore or Alberta, tells us 3 things – first that successful systems tend to be small. England is too big a unit. Second, the successful systems tend to stick with long term strategies. Our national level is too politicised and media-hungry to stick to long term plans. And third, that devolution to schools is not the answer to everything. For instance, I think that delegation of Information Advice and Guidance to schools from Local Authorities is potentially disastrous, especially for our most confused and vulnerable young people.

'So I wonder whether in the longer term we should look to a full Swiss-style cantonisation of education, where DfE transfers significant current powers to regions, sub regions, city-regions or individual local authorities.

'Going back to the shorter term, what might be the first step to this? I have one specific proposal, relating to academies, which now takes up so much DfE time and resource.

Our Academies Commission was very clear on the role of Local Authorities.

Local authorities should also embrace a stronger role in education– not as providers of school improvement services but as guardians and champions of the needs and interests of all children in the area. The Commission believes that over a period of three years, local authorities should phase out all their own provision of school improvement services and devolve them to school-led partnerships.

'The commission was also clear that they meant traded services too, as this compromises their capacity for neutral intervention. I agree with the commission, but would add the following recommendation, partly building on Robert Hill's RSA paper on the 'Middle Tier'.

'Once any LA genuinely does no school improvement work itself, whether for maintained schools or academies, and also sees all schools in its patch, whether academies or not, as self-governing, then it can play a central role in the academisation process itself.

'So the second part of my proposal is for the DfE to give up most of the powers the secretary of state has around academisation to any local authority, or group of Local Authorities, who has fully withdrawn from school improvement. At that point, they can become an effective neutral broker and should be rewarded with the power to determine which schools require the sponsored academy route, and which schools have the quality and collaborative capacity to take on a convertor status. It should be Local Authorities, or possibly sub regions, who should hold the funding agreements with Academy Trusts, and who should hold the power to replace them where justified. Such refranchising processes would come under national rules, but be determined locally.

' I don’t think this is going to happen soon. Generally the rule of politics is that all politicians are localists until they get into power.

' So finally, and in the much shorter term, I’ll turn to what might Local Authorities do around school improvement now. In our work with Suffolk we developed a framework to support discussions. We looked at the three local authority functions as described by ISOS, and combined them with  the key features of school improvement identified in the London Challenge Evaluation. We then tried to plot the possible future roles of the Local Authority, and of our recommended new external trust, the  'Suffolk Partnership for Excellence in Learning' , against this grid. See page 30 of our Suffolk Report.

'Lots of ideas here, but if I had to summarise this all  in one sentence, I’d say that  the most important future role for local councils in education is to build the capacity for challenging collaborations.

'Finally, and returning partly to the philosophical rather than the pragmatic. People talk a lot about ‘false dichotomies’ in education, for instance between knowledge and skills, collaboration and competition. I agree, but I also think real dichotomies will remain in the eternally contested space of education, and that these should be embraced rather than disguised. Looking at education in England, despite the coherence of much of what this government is doing, I feel that there are three outstanding tensions which need recognition if not resolution:

'First, is autonomy for schools a route to or a reward for success?

'Second, should isolation, however ‘splendid’, ever be an acceptable attitude for any school or other publicly funded institution?

'Finally, who, if anyone, should care about broader non-attainment outcomes for young people?'

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