In the Guardian today, Sir Michael Wilshaw is said to be proposing "a team of local commissioners […] to identify institutions that should lose their academy status and find headteachers who should be replaced".http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/dec/28/new-ofsted-chief-failing-academies?newsfeed=true Meanwhile, the IPPR calls for local schools commissioners to be champions for schools and parents. Those of us who work in local government children's services will recognise these roles. Some of us have occupied them. Some of us may still do so. This is what LEA school improvement teams, heads of education, heads of learning and achievement, school commissioners etc. are and do. This is our work. And the massive increase in the number of Academies under this government is a testament to the success of this work, because the vast majority of 'Academy Converters' since the coalition government came into power have been 'outstanding' schools. These are schools that have achieved at the highest levels with the support and the challenge of their local authority partners. The partnership may not always have been cosy, the partners may not have always seen eye-to-eye, but every outstanding community school prior to academy conversion was evidence that community schools and local authorities in partnership can achieve great things. Of course, funding has been removed from these local authority services, which have been significantly dismantled in response to the cuts, but which still usually have a core offer of challenge and support to local community schools. Though not Academies, because Academies, notoriously, came in to being in order to exist outside local authority 'control'. (Never mind that under Local Management of Schools local authorities haven't actually controlled schools for ages anyway, but I digress). So local authorities can't support and challenge Academies. Because Academies must be free of scrutiny. Free to…er…fail. Wilshaw is now publicly admitting what everyone quietly already knew, which is that school performance can go down as well as up, and there is nothing – let me say that again: NOTHING! – intrinsic to Academy governance arrangements that will prevent them from 'failing' like any other school. So, now, apparently, we need a new body just like LEAs but 'non-political' to keep an eye on Academy performance. Wilshaw's definition of 'non-political' seems to be a body that reports directly to the Secretary of State. Hmmm. So much for localism, eh? Let's see the Academy reforms for what they are, an aggressive programme of centralisation and power-grabbing for the Secretary of State, with absolutely no guarantee of quality attached. Gove and his team at DfE need LEAs (or something like them), but he doesn't want awkward, determinedly independent ones, just ones that will toe his line. 'Non-political' (ha!) appointees. Wilshaw's proposals are an admission that schools which used to be 'outstanding' when part of the local authority's 'community school' family will, after becoming Academies, perform less well. Not all of them, of course, but inevitably some of them. This is because working with, or working without local authority support and challenge never has been the thing that makes an average school good and a good school great. Nor has it been what causes a good school to 'coast' or a weaker school to go into free-fall. Stuff happens in schools. Head-teachers come and go; local demography changes; reputations, good and bad, lag behind reality. Academies, just by virtue of being schools, will need monitoring, evaluating, supporting and challenging in just the same way that community schools are monitored and evaluated by their local authority partners. The only possible reason for not recommending that local authorities do this work is in order to make sure that the Secretary of State's particular and peculiar hobby-horses are always the ones that are promoted through the partnering arrangements. So, to sum up: Becoming an Academy will not make a school a better one, in fact, it may (incidentally) become worse.
Work that looks a lot like what local authorities already do with community schools will also need to be done – by someone – with Academies.
The Secretary of State won't approve an arrangement that includes democratic accountability through local government because that's just not his personal cup-of-tea, and in Gove-world that's all that matters.
So we can expect a whole new super-structure of local 'intermediary bodies' who can get into Academies before Ofsted does and let them know what they need to do to make the Ofsted grade. Where, I wonder, will they find all these 'school commissioners'? Well, of course, there's the old local authority school improvement workforce that was so recently told there was no need for them. There is nothing new under the sun.