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Viewpoint: What “We will make local authorities running schools a thing of the past” might mean

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Tucked away in the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s Autumn Statement speech is “we will make local authorities running schools a thing of the past”. John Fowler, Policy Manager, LGiU, looks at what this might mean for local and national government.

With one sentence, “We will make local authorities running schools a thing of the past”, George Osborne dismissed 113 years of local government involvement in the education of all children in England. Ironically, the Act which enabled local government to “run” schools was introduced by a Conservative Treasury Minister on his way to becoming Prime Minister. The Education Act 1902 created a single school system out of an “isolated and unconnected” system comprising of 2,568 school boards and 14,238 voluntary bodies providing elementary schools, an unknown number of schools (around 600) with charitable foundations which provided what passed for secondary education at the time, and the local authority established evening institutions and technical schools under 1889 legislation. Local elected councils replaced a system which had little accountability for expenditure decisions, ensuring the elimination of such practices as the ‘farming’ of voluntary schools in disregard of the condition that schools should not be carried on for private profit.

Consider:-

The Blue Book containing the formal statement puts it differently. The local authority role in running schools will be “reduced” which will be done by removing a number of statutory duties (para 2.64, page 91). The Chancellor’s speech says we will “help every secondary school become an Academy”. It does not say we will “require”. We can get into a semantic debate about the meaning of “run”: some pro-local government voices say that local authorities have not “run” schools for 25 years. This is mistaken. The Government will promote legislation in 2016 to reduce significantly local government’s role in schools.

The easiest way to reduce, but admittedly not remove, a local authority statutory duty is to stop national funding. The Autumn Statement states the Government will cut the current £800 million Education Services Grant (ESG) by £600 million (75%). For 2015-16, the ESG contains £15 per pupil for the duties which local authorities carry out on behalf of children attending maintained and Academy schools, principally to do with school improvement and education welfare services. This £15 per pupil may be secure as the statement refers only to “phasing out the additional funding schools receive through the ESG”. Mainstream schools receive £87 per pupil, which goes to the LA for maintained schools to carry out a number of regulatory functions. A full list of these duties can be found in the LGiU Policy Briefing Education Services Grant 2015-16 (£) (August 2014). It is not known whether any of the current ESG supported duties will be “de-delegated”, or otherwise listed as a centrally retained budget, in order for them to be funded through the Dedicated Schools Grant (DSG) for 2016-17.

The statement confirms that “the government will consult on policy and funding proposals in 2016”. This is code for saying that there will be a White Paper, possibly with Green edges, in the early Summer, followed by a significant Education Bill in the next session of Parliament in late 2016. The national press have now picked this up. See All schools to be academies by 2020 (£) (Sunday Times, 29 November 2015): ‘A “reforming” bill being drafted in the Department for Education (DfE), which would complete the “true blue” education revolution started by the former education secretary Michael Gove, is expected to be debated next year’. The DfE will have established a White Paper team which will examine first how to make the Academy model less bureaucratic, perhaps by transferring much of the current funding agreement to secondary legislation in the way that the Elementary School Code enabled Whitehall to control what went on inside elementary schools long after local government became responsible for ensuring there were sufficient school places, and public money was spent correctly. The White Paper team will then consider ways of making the transfer of maintained schools to Academy status easier. We shall probably have to wait until the White paper is published to find if the DfE team will tackle the local authority duties financially supported by the DSG and ESG including the two big expenditure areas funded currently through the Dedicated Schools Grant of school transport and special educational needs. However, it is unlikely that changes could be made until the 2018-19 financial year.

The Conservative manifesto was silent on the issue of the role of local government in school education apart from the proposals that are in the Education and Adoption Bill currently before Parliament. However, the Prime Minister’s “100 day” article in the Daily Telegraph (15 August 2015) declares “I want teachers, not bureaucrats, deciding how best to educate our children … I want every school in the country to have the opportunity to become an academy and to benefit from the freedoms this brings. So we will make it a priority to recruit more academy sponsors and support more great headteachers in coming together in academy chains. In doing so, we can extend educational excellence and opportunity to every school and every child in our country”. In Whitehall-speak, this is known as the “100% Academy strategy” although whether it actually means that, and the timescale for implementation, is another matter.

Local government has few friends for its education work. There are stalwart Councillors of all political parties who give much time and energy to making local government work for children and their schools. Most, but not all, the teaching unions are supportive of the local authority role. Most, but not all, trade journals are supportive, but the national media has little understanding of local government’s role and is often willing to accept what the Government tells it. Often, former senior staff charged with making the school system work are the worst. Many of the DfE Academy brokers had worked in local government and were apparently happy at helping to dismantle the school system they had helped to run. In a tweet following the Chancellor’s announcement a former Ofsted Director of School Inspection wrote “It’s not that Acads will get it right just that LAs have got it wrong”.

The DCLG’s devolution proposals are not going to extend to the recently acquired powers of the Secretary of State for Education. When the Chair of the Lords Select Committee on the Constitution wrote in October 2015 ‘We would … be interested to understand the reason for this decision to shift power away from local communities and towards central government, and how this Bill fits into the Government’s plans to devolve power away from the centre’ in the Education and Adoption Bill, Schools Minister Lord Nash replied ‘The creation of Regional Schools Commissioners – and the headteacher boards that advise them – shows our absolute determination to create a school led system and to devolve decision making to experts on the frontline as far as possible. This is completely in keeping with the Government’s localism agenda’.

On the bright side, the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) appears keen to involve local government in further education and skills, a direct descendant of the functions bestowed on the counties and county boroughs in 1889, but taken away in 1992. Several of the combined authority proposals show an expectation, with national government support, for local government to take a strategic role in developing the area’s economy. Further education and skills, as well as local government, are among the services most significantly cut since 2010. If one is to be positive about the Government’s apparent enthusiasm for local government to take a strategic lead on further education and skills it is that when money is short locally elected people may be better at decision making across their local area than Whitehall-diktat.

In conclusion

To local government: There will no doubt be many opportunities over the next two years to debate the performance of local government and in its role in the school system. Frequently local government is its own worst enemy. Will collective local government stand up for its role in the ensuing debate on the forthcoming White Paper? The LGA, SOLACE and ADCS have been silent following the Chancellor’s announcement. When asked by the Sunday Times, all Roy Perry, the Conservative leader of Hampshire county council and chairman of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, could say was ‘If government were to say there is no role for local government in education that would be a sad day. I hope this does not become a political issue. Within Conservative-controlled councils we see ourselves as having a very positive and important role in education.’

To the DfE White Paper team: do look at the reasons why the Conservative Government in 1902 needed to reform the “isolated and unconnected” school system. Do we want a system of 2,568 of Multi-Academy Trusts and Academy Trusts harbouring 14,238 governing bodies all beholden only to Whitehall? And will such a system help schools improve? Will it be good for the health of both national and local democracy in England? And for what it is worth, the voter turnout for elected school boards was about half that of the new local authorities in the 1890s.

To the national Government: The Government’s messages being carried by the national media that ‘every English state school could be released from local council control and turned into an academy by 2020, under government plans due to be published in the spring’ will inevitably make it harder for local government to perform the complex role it currently does in the school system, especially as it will make it harder to recruit and retain the right elected members and staff to do these tasks. There is an urgent need for clarity. Please can we have it?