With over 50 percent of secondary schools having converted to academy status, it is time to radically slim down the Department for Education (DfE) and devolve powers to new regional or sub regional education commissioners that sit alongside an independent regulatory body, according to a report published by the RSA.
The Missing Middle: The Case for School Commissioners concludes that governmental distrust of poor and mediocre local authorities has meant that responsibility for overseeing academies and the creation of new free schools has been centralised to the DfE.
The report argues that this is 'not a rational or sustainable system' – and sets out a new vision, based on the evidence from other countries and London Challenge, for an educational 'middle tier' in which city mayors, regional or sub-regional authorities appoint commissioners to develop and steer a shared educational strategy.
The new commissioners would be charged with identifying school improvement priorities; co-ordinating place planning and school competitions across local authorities; commissioning specialist services for vulnerable children; challenging local authorities to do more to improve schools; and working to ensure all schools are part of school improvement networks.
The report says that there is currently huge variability in local authority performance – especially in the area of school improvement. The report endorses the government's emphasis on school-to-school support but argues that the overall impact of teaching school alliances, federations, and school chains would be that much greater if their efforts and resources were aligned around shared objectives and an agreed strategy.
Policy incoherence around the 'unguided missile' that is free schools compounds this problem, the report says. It argues that there is 'little rhyme or reason as to where free schools are being permitted' and that regional commissioners could develop a better strategy, encouraging new schools to open where there is most demand for school places or where existing schools are failing.
The report warns that 'hard to place' pupils and vulnerable children currently risk being left behind if academy headteachers 'refuse to play ball' and that local leadership is needed to create a culture of transparency and collaboration around school admissions.
The report calls for:
A slimmed down DfE that stops focussing on the implementation of policy and the monitoring of individual schools. Ministers should shape the broad framework of education policy including the national curriculum, school accountability and the budget.
A new independent regulator that would oversee rules regarding admissions, places, appeals and transparency around schools converting to academy status.
New commissioners jointly appointed by mayors or city regions and the Secretary of State who develop local strategies for school improvement.
Local authorities to continue to plan the supply of school places – but within the context set by the regulator. They would maintain their role in co-ordinating admissions and focus on promoting the wellbeing of children, providing for those with special needs and tracking the performance of all schools using performance data, Ofsted results and soft intelligence.
Commenting on the report, Robert Hill said:
“The time to end the remorseless accretion of powers to the centre is long overdue. Of course government should set the policy priorities and determine the overall budget for the education system - but many other roles could and should be devolved. School autonomy is here to stay but we need to redefine and redraw the middle tier in English education: not as an end in itself but as a more effect means ensuring school leaders, teachers, universities, parents, employers and other agencies work together towards providing better educational outcomes for young people.”
An investigation by the RSA into Suffolk’s ‘stuck’ underperforming schools has called on the borough to encourage greater collaboration, stronger leadership and introduce radical new partnerships in order to turn things around.