A novel idea: education for the common good

Local authorities can help us build a less fragmented education system


How can we work together to further the interests of all the children in our community? Not a familiar question in recent years, thanks to the breakdown of collaborative structures in local education.

League tables, competitive positioning, separate funding streams and management teams have encouraged schools and colleges to think about segments of the local population in isolation, as the Public Accounts Committee pinpointed when it reviewed the destinations of school leavers.

The Committee found, unsurprisingly, that when young people change or lose direction, no institution is responsible for monitoring or supporting their progress, even if nominally local authorities are supposed to collect data and schools and colleges to provide it.

Even if local authorities clearly recognise such a role for themselves, they are hampered by the growth of school and college autonomy at the expense of traditional notions of democratic legitimacy. What’s urgently needed is a way of combining the best of both in the interests of students of all ages – children, young people and adults.

Labour’s proposed directors of school standards (DSS) is a useful step but in need of definition. This is what Compass proposed in our recently launched report calling for an all-age comprehensive education service:

Begin by assigning to local government the job of champion of the interests of all the learners in its area, especially the most disadvantaged, as the Local Government Association has recommended.

Require clusters of two or more local councils to lead, in collaboration with all publicly funded educational providers, the preparation of a local plan for education for all ages, set within a national framework of aims, objectives and priorities.

Re-name the DSS simply Directors of Education (DE) to reflect the cradle to grave focus.

Then, take the existing local education scrutiny committees and beef them up by:

1. Enlarging and strengthening their membership by including a majority of representatives of education stakeholders – parents, employers, trade unions, students and the education providers themselves. This is the place where the competing demands of local democratic legitimacy, management autonomy and the voice of service users have to be negotiated and reconciled.

2. Making them the body to which the DE is responsible and works for. If it makes sense for the DE to be responsible for a cluster of districts then it also makes sense for the new scrutiny committees to have a remit for two or more local authority areas. Setting them apart in that way from individual local authorities reduces the risk of a conflict of interest between their roles as service providers and scrutinisers.

Finally, we propose re-naming the scrutiny committees Local Education Boards and giving them, and the DE they employ, the responsibilities of local oversight for education and therefore as the point of redress for students and parents with legitimate grievances.

We would expect the DE, on behalf of the Board, to report annually to its community on the impact of the local education plan. The Board would also be accountable to parliament through a reformed Ofsted, and the DE would be consulted in the drawing up of the local plan, working closely with local authority and other service managers.

Martin Yarnit leads Compass’ work on local education governance

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