The “Missing Middle” – why we need school commissioners

Free schools are currently operating as an expensive ‘unguided missile’ in the school system with little rhyme or reason as to where they are permitted.

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By Robert Hill of the RSA

Michael Gove is fond of highlighting how the English education system can learn from other countries.

gove-glassesSingapore’s curriculum and exams, New Orleans’ charter schools, Finland’s high quality teacher qualifications and Shanghai’s excellence in PISA rankings are among the overseas exemplars the education secretary has highlighted.

But as he seeks to develop a system of great schools across England there is one international lesson that Michael Gove seems to be less keen on following.

Evidence from New York, Boston, Ontario, Singapore – as well as nearer to home in London – shows that schools make faster progress as a whole when school improvements efforts are co-ordinated and steered at a city or sub-regional level.

This does not mean turning the clock back on freedom for schools – academies and school autonomy are here to stay. School-to-school support should continue to drive school improvement. Free schools have the potential to bring innovation and greater diversity to the school system.

The argument is not so much with the government’s individual policies but with the fact that they do not add up to a coherent whole. For example, free schools are currently operating as an expensive ‘unguided missile’ in the school system with little rhyme or reason as to where they are being permitted.

It would make much more sense to promote and open new schools in areas where there is most demand for school places or where existing schools are failing.

The strategy for school improvement is also incoherent. The government does not trust local authorities to identify and arrange support for struggling schools. In part the suspicion is justified and in part it is not: local authority performance is inconsistent and councils are paring back their education services as budget cuts bite.


See also:

One of Gove’s free schools gets only 37 applications for September 29 Jun 2012

Gove must stop seeing the British education system as part of a global qualifications race 21 Jun 2012

Gove doesn’t like bureaucratic interference unless it’s his bureaucratic interference 11 Jun 2012


Instead the government is increasingly relying on school chains, teaching schools and other groupings. While this is a welcome strategy the reality is that many schools are not covered by such arrangements – and not all school chains and partnerships are effective.

And for the schools with the worst track record the government is, in effect, itself becoming the local authority. The Department for Education is seeking to mastermind from Whitehall the process of matching sponsors with hundreds of seriously underperforming schools at a point when it is also struggling to monitor the performance of the burgeoning number of academies.

Ironically for an allegedly ‘small state’ Conservative-led government, Michael Gove is building a command and control machine that is much more extensive than anything New Labour ever attempted. This approach is neither sensible nor sustainable.

As cities and economic sub regions come to play more of a role in growing our economy, renewing our infrastructure and developing skills, schools and local authorities should become part of a more devolved way of working.

A directly elected mayor or the political leadership for a sub-region could appoint a commissioner or, in the first instance, jointly appoint with the education secretary, an education commissioner. Commissioners would be high-calibre individuals who would command the confidence and respect of school leaders and have strong influencing and inter-personal skills.

Their role would be as much about the exercise of influence and soft power as executive responsibilities and would encompass:

• Developing a shared strategy for improving all schools and raising the quality of teaching and learning;

• Co-ordinating schools place planning and competitions for new schools across local authorities and commissioning specialist services for vulnerable children;

• Challenging local authorities that were either too lax in understanding the performance of local schools, or too overbearing in their dealings with school leaders;

• Working with teaching schools and chains to co-ordinate city/county-wide improvement efforts and ensure no school is left behind;

• Determining when alternative providers should be brought in to take over failing schools; and

• Linking the curriculum to the culture and needs of the area and mobilising third sector and employer support to broaden experiences and resources for young people.

A commissioner’s ability to steer the system would come from holding funding agreements for all academies – itself a major act of decentralisation. The commissioner would allocate capital funding for major school building projects and distribute a school improvement fund (devolved from the DfE) to help weave school improvement initiatives across the sub-region into a coherent whole.

Arrangements might take a different form in different places but without the knitting together that a commissioner could provide the risk is that we end up with a patchwork quilt education system: a growing number of outstanding schools sitting alongside schools that struggle or are left behind.

The learning from other countries is clear: if you want all schools and all pupils to progress then develop strong political and professional leadership that aligns your strategy, resources and key people in each city and sub-region.


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20 Responses to “The “Missing Middle” – why we need school commissioners”

  1. leftlinks

    Left Foot Forward – The “Missing Middle” – why we need school commissioners

  2. Luke Robinson

    @Robt_Hill writes about @theRSAorg report ‘The Missing Middle’ and the need to radically slim down DfE for @leftfootfwd

  3. Luke Robinson

    The "Missing Middle" – why we need school commissioners: by @theRSAorg’s Robert Hill

  4. Political Planet

    The “Missing Middle” – why we need school commissioners: Free schools are currently operating as an expensive ‘u…

  5. NewsatLeft

    The “Missing Middle” – why we need school commissioners #PublicServicesforAll #Education #RSA #schools

  6. NewsatLeft

    The “Missing Middle” – why we need school commissioners #PublicServicesforAll #Education #RSA #schools

  7. Harry Devonport

    The "Missing Middle" – why we need school commissioners: by @theRSAorg’s Robert Hill

  8. Sean Hanley

    The "Missing Middle" – why we need school commissioners: by @theRSAorg’s Robert Hill

  9. Howard Knight

    The analysis is fine, but the Commissioner presciption is muddled. This is the job of a LEA. If the LEA isn’t functioning well, that’s what needs to be sorted – not the creation of another commissioning quango.

  10. Veronicahardstaff

    I agree with Howard. We are in danger of the creation of a totally incoherent patchwork of schools with no real accountability to local parents and children. The Local Authority has responsibility for providing the school places in the areas where the children are in order to provide a comprehensive education service to meet the needs of every child. The idea that in every area there is some wonderful whizz kid who will have all the answers to the needs of ALL children, including those with all kinds of special needs, and single-handedly will be able to fix every problem, whether a school destroyed by fire or hit by the sudden death of key staff members, a sudden influx of additional non native speaking children, or academy schools unable to provide the leadership a school in a very deprived area needs, is just pie in the sky. Local Authorities have a responsibility to maintain a framework of support to all their schools, available when required, and the local councillors are very much more accessible to parents when problems do arise than one “super person”.

  11. Julie King

    The "Missing Middle" – why we need school commissioners: by @theRSAorg’s Robert Hill

  12. Robert Hill

    Hi Howard,
    The argument the report makes is that schools systems that brigade and steer school improvement (and other policies) at city regional level perform better. The DfE evaluation of City Challenge published last week provides more evidence of this. LAs have a role but their performance is variable – commissioners are part of the answer to ineffective LAs. Commissioners also facilitate major devolution from central govt and DfE.

  13. Phil

    In an article that cites the need to learn from international comparisons, it is revealing that you fail to cite a single country that has successfully adopted the “schools commissioner” model that you cite. Local authority coordinated education is the norm internationally, with a far greater degree of coordination and direction than we see in England. And compared to the “totally incoherent patchwork of schools with no real accountability” that we have developed here over the last 27 years, those models are by and large succeeding where we are not.

  14. Anonymous

    Unguided? They’re targeted. The end-goal is abolishing free schooling, of course.

  15. Robert Hill

    Hi Veronica

    It certainly is not a super whizz kid one is looking for – it is someone to work with and join up the education jigsaw which is you say is at risk of becoming fragmented. Schools would lead on providing school improvement and LAs would still have many of the roles you describe – but it is about co-ordinating and steering school leaders, empowering their development, ensuring all schools are part of effective school improvement networks, addressing failing schools and bringing in new providers where needed. Education also needs to be linked into the wider development of sub regions and the skills employers need and Commissioners would help to do this.

  16. Robert Hill

    Hi Phil

    If you read the full report which you can find here you will find three detailed case studies of New York, Ontario and London Challenge (though I could have also cited Boston, New Orleans, Singapore, Shanghai and more). The evidence is clear: schools and local districts/authorities are ore effective when they work within the context of a sub-regional strategy steered by a commissioner who is politically accountable.

  17. Robin Thorpe

    Until 2 years ago every school had a School Improvement Partner that was linked with both the Local Education Authority and local community; they were done away with by the recent administration. The role of the School Improvement Partner was to co-ordinate of the School Improvement Plan and assist with it’s implementation.
    I completely agree with this from the article “Ironically for an allegedly ‘small state’ Conservative-led government, Michael Gove is building a command and control machine that is much more extensive than anything New Labour ever attempted. This approach is neither sensible nor sustainable.” If Local Education Authorities who have local knowledge are “failing” what makes central government think they can do any better. It just further removes local, democratic accountability.
    Gove is following the example set during the 1980s of reducing the power of local authorities and absorbing the responsibility for oversight into Whitehall. A system that can only lead to abuse from private contractors.

  18. Robin Thorpe

    Although I do not disagree entirely with this article; I think the evidence you quote is skewed to prove your point. You miss out the fact that, in at least some, of the states mentioned formal education does not start until 6 and childcare provision at an early age is better co-ordinated. Certainly Finland, Denmark, Australia, New Zealand and China offer more free nursery provision from the ages of 3-5 then we do here and start formal education later. It is no coincidence that they perform better academically. Research has shown that beginning formal education at 4 – rising 5 – (as we do here) has an ADVERSE effect on academic achievement (relative to starting at age 6).

  19. Robert Hill

    Hi Robin

    Free nursery education is indeed of high value – research on its impact in England confirms this. But it does not need to be either/or. The research in the report draws on evidence that specifically relates to and validates the value of having sub-regional systems and leadership. School Improvement Partners had mixed reviews but where I agree with you is that every school (or group of school of schools) needs to have a system in place for subjecting itself to rigorous peer or independent review.

  20. Robin Thorpe

    I’ll grant you that School Improvement Partners were not universally well-received; my point was to draw attention to a similar scheme implemented by the previous administration. If the research does indeed validate this method then it would indicate that Labour were perhaps on the right path but not bold enough.
    I happen to think that the county system of LEAs is the one most likely to achieve equality of opportunity – albeit some LEAs are not particurlarly effective. Certainly this is the case with regard to admissions although some of the functions are not well managed even in good LEAs. In the area where I live, the single most important factor in a governing body choosing to go to Academy status that I have heard was increased funding; this was a short term bribe as from next year I believe funding of academies will reduce. Perhaps the biggest reform that could be achieved within education is to fund all schools equally. The current system differs widely in the funding per child for each area and this includes the funding of academies. A child in a rural county generally receives approx 2/3rds the funding of a child in a city; and don’t lets pretend that this is for reasons of deprivation, as deprivation has been a source of additional funding since before the ‘pupil premium’. The new funding formula prescribed by the DoE for 2013-14 includes a line of funding specifically for deprivation and yet still some children are funded at a different rate to others ( I don’t mention this to denigrate from your point, merely to point out that there are a multitude of variables that may affect the efficacy of any single policy.
    Your proposal of a commissioner coincides with a thought that I have had brewing for a while of elected councillors with a specific mandate for overseeing a particular part of the local authority’s remit. Currently a County Council, for example, comprises members elected to represent a number of small wards. Why not increase the ward size and have some councillors for local representation and some councillors elected for a specific role? This would keep the oversight of public services within a democratic framework rather than creating disparate roles with competing objectives. For this to be effective the significance of council elections would need to be higher than is currently so. But then this also holds true for your proposal and for the Police Commissioner elections that will be held later this year.

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