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This week, David Blunkett MP, the former Secretary of State for Education and Employment, published his report that makes recommendations for the Labour party’s policy in relation to the education system after the next election. The report specifically looks at the framework and structures of the education system, rather than details of curriculum and qualifications. In particular, the report looks at the accountability structures at what has become known as the ‘middle tier’ level. The report states that the challenge is to provide ‘sufficient autonomy to be able to drive standards from within the school, whilst at the same time providing accountability to protect the interests of pupils and safeguard the investment of public resources.”
The main recommendation is for a new post of independent “Director of School Standards” (DSS) to monitor schools. The key function of the role would be to drive up standards in all types of school. The proposal is that a DSS will be appointed across local authority (LA) boundaries, by an appointments panel made-up of key local partners and from a short-list approved by the Office of Schools Commissioner. The DSS role would be to facilitate improvement arrangements with only a small secretariat working directly for the incumbent. The DSS would “broker partnerships” between schools at a local level, oversee commissioning of new schools and school places, as well as “providing support in areas such as special needs, training, career provision and progression into post-16.” The DSS’s remit would cover all types of schools, and therefore the current government’s Regional Commissioners for academies would be abolished.
The document recognises the importance of school to school collaboration for encouraging school improvement and recommends that a statutory duty be placed on LAs to promote such arrangements. The DSS would have power to intervene when inadequate or unsatisfactory collaboration arrangements existed.
One specific recommendation in relation to collaboration is that those schools, largely primaries, which are not currently in a formal structure, should be brought together under a ‘community trust’. It is not entirely clear from the document why this would be better than any other form of collaboration, or what role it would play in the accountability framework.
In relation to governance, the document recognises the challenge inherent in being a governor or trustee, and recommends that more support and training be provided. The document also says that a Labour government would work with the National Governors’ Association to ensure that best practice on governance is identified, developed and disseminated to governors/trustees. The document is less clear about the accountability role played by governing boards at school and federation level. Slightly bizarrely, the document focuses on the need for the governing body to be equipped with an ‘appropriate lead on finance’ – as opposed to its other responsibilities. It also highlights complaints procedures and says it is helpful to schools and parents if there is a coherent complaints procedure; we are unsure if the review team realise that this is already a statutory requirement for all schools. It also says there should be a nominated governor/trust member whose task is to oversee such mechanisms – again this seems to miss the fact that this is in most schools the chair of the board. The report also suggests there may be some mileage in looking at payment for the chairs of large trusts or even large standalone schools.
The report recommends that local authorities retain responsibility for identifying the need for new school places and making recommendations about whether this need should be met through expanding existing provision or through wholly new provision. The DSS would be responsible for consulting, inviting proposals and making final decisions – with the option of an appeal to the Office of the Schools Commissioner.
Other recommendations are:
The report is welcomed by Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Tristram Hunt, and Labour leader, Ed Miliband. Tristram Hunt said: "Under Michael Gove, schools are being left to ‘sink or swim’ – more than 1.5m children are in underperforming schools. That’s why Labour will introduce new and robust local oversight of all schools to raise standards. That’s what new Directors of School Standards will bring.”
NGA welcomes the development of Labour party policy, and we will be discussing these proposals further with them, and in particular aiming to ensure that the party fully understands the role of governing boards in local accountability, distinguishing it from purely stakeholder engagement.
You can download the full Blunkett report here.
You can find coverage of the report on the BBC and the Guardian.