Under the Coalition government local authorities (LAs) have been disempowered and marginalised. This post argues for the re-empowerment and democratisation of the role of LAs under a Labour government on two interrelated grounds: educational effectiveness and civic democracy.
Various forms of school support partnerships have spread, but without centralised local coordination and direction support can be patchy due to competition and lack of capacity [1, 2, 3, 4]. The marginalisation of LAs, the spread of academies and the coercive pressure of the ‘standards’ agenda depoliticises LAs and minimises local democratic accountability.
The ‘standards’ issue
A Labour government would continue the Academies policy even though there is no evidence that they perform better than local authority schools if you compare like with like (see most recently Stewart).
Labour’s key innovation is the creation of Directors for School Standards (DSS), employed by two or more LAs, responsible for standards in all schools in their area and for planning school places and setting up new schools.
Among those able to bid for new schools are academy sponsors and chains and also parent groups and ‘social entrepreneurs’, which is simply the Coalition’s free schools policy rebranded. Notably, local authorities are not included. Schools are free to leave Sponsor Chains, but how if the chain appoints the majority of governors?
The role of the LA would be to collect and provide data to the DSS, identify where failure exists, and foster collaboration between schools. But it is not specified what resources and powers LAs would have to ensure support is provided, or for example to control admissions or compel academies to expand.
Local Education Panels
The Blunkett Review not only envisages LAs as advocates for pupils and parents but wider civic participation in policy-making, enabled principally through the creation of Local Education Panels. These would include representatives from schools, parents and the LA, who would work with the DSS on the development of a long-term strategic plan for education, oversee commissioning decisions and agree the budget proposed by the DSS.
The Local Education Panel exemplifies the fundamental issue underlying Labour’s policies: what is the power relationship between the DSS, the LA and the Local Education Panel? On a whole range of issues it is the DSS who decides. But the DSS is an employee of the LAs who have appointed her or him. Is the DSS therefore subject to their policies, within the national framework? If so, this would represent a fundamental break with the centralised policies of the Coalition and the reinvigoration of local councils’ role in education. Or is the DSS in effect just the local satrap of the secretary of state?
Democratising the local school system
Fielding and Moss advocate the local authority ‘as a leader and facilitator of the development of a local educational project, a shared and democratic exploration of the meaning and practice of education and the potential of the school.’ What structures, powers and participants would make this possible?
- The role of the DSS is unnecessary. All of the DSS’s functions could be carried out by reinvigorated, resourced and democratised LAs, with oversight by an independent HMI. If the DSS policy is implemented, they should, as employees of LAs, act as officers of LAs, responsible for carrying out LA policy.
- Academies and free schools should be integrated into fully inclusive local systems of state-funded schools. No school should be controlled by another school or private organisations though voluntary collaborations are to be welcomed.
- LAs need the capacity in terms of powers and resources to:
- support schools in addressing problems and to intervene effectively in schools which are under-performing, principally by initiating, coordinating and funding collaborative school partnerships for improvement;
- promote progressive pedagogic and curriculum innovation;
- restrict the exercise of school autonomy if it conflicts with wider community interests in social justice
- exercise control over admissions policy and the provision of school places.
- LAs should establish Local Education Panels, properly resourced and democratically structured to ensure the maximum participation of parents, teachers, heads, governors, elected representatives of the wider community and other stakeholders, capable of developing a strategic plan for the local education system and shaping the work of the DSS, who should be accountable to it.
- The Cabinet and Scrutiny system needs to be opened up to popular and professional participation. The Education Scrutiny Committee should be opened up to representation and input from the Local Education Panel. And the local council should establish an Education Committee with co-opted lay members elected by the Local Education Panel.
 House of Commons Education Committee (2013) School Partnerships and Cooperation. Fourth Report of Session 2013–14. Volume I: Report, together with formal minutes, oral and written evidence. London: The Stationery Office.