Why we might need school commissioners…

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".


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.


9 thoughts on “Why we might need school commissioners…

  1. You are right that the LA role is to monitor schools, and help them improve. However, you say that the outstanding schools are so good due to the support of the LA. Do you really believe this? In most LAs, the improvement service have spent most of their time in schools who are having difficulties. Also, this relationship has been cosy in some LAs with schools who have spent years trying toimprove, and in others there has been challenge but no support (or poor support). I am not sure a commissioner will be of any use at all, LAs should be the best people to do this but their track record (in some LAs) has been poor. I fear that the future is confusing, and made up with little or no thought for the students.

  2. Robert, Your points are well made and I’m certainly not claiming that every local authority has always done this kind of work well. I chose my words carefully though and didn’t say that outstanding schools are outstanding because of, or due to, the way their local authorities worked. In fact I say really clearly that it’s never been the support and challenge of the LA that makes the difference. It’s the ‘in school’ and ‘in community’ factors together that create the conditions in which schools thrive and they feed off each other. That’s why I don’t believe sweeping structural or governance changes can possibly make a difference. What makes a difference is people, their behaviours and their relationships.

  3. Clear and correct. The ‘LA control’ that Academies are to be ‘freed’ of is a myth. LAs support and challenge schools (of course some do this better than others), but none have the power to hamstring the teaching and learning in a school. It seems the SoS wants to have this power though.I visited one of the first primary academy converters in September, the head told me they had converted not because they were worried about LA control, but because as a progressive school they wanted to be free of what they expected would become a backward-looking curriculum under Gove. It would be unfortunate if their move actually puts them under more direct control from the SoS.

  4. If ever there was an example of "be careful what you wish for" this has to be it. I smile wryly at the thought of a progressive school becoming an academy to avoid Gove’s "backward-looking curriculum" only to find itself under the direct supervision of, well, er, Gove! And Gove assisted by a department that doesn’t have the capacity to supervise all these schools directly. Sir Michael Wilshaw’s proposal is an admission of this fact, so let’s round up all the laid-off SIPs and SIOs and recruit them as school commissioners. You couldn’t make it up. And the idea that they would be non-political because they report to the SoS – the current SoS is anything but non-political! I hadn’t pegged Sir Michael as being so astoundingly naive.

  5. What happens to the land that is transferred from the LA when a school becomes an academy if the school then "loses" its academy status? Will it revert to the LA? If so I am going to retrain as a solicitor pdq because it will be jackpot time But seriously this is just another example of an ill thought out policy based on no evidence being shown up for what it is. Having said that, I am not sure that Wilshaw’s proposal is any better considered than the academies policy. There is no provision in the current legislation for the loss of academy status so that would mean more -maybe even another Bill- would be necessary. Managing schools by Act of Parliament seems a bit cumbersome.

  6. This is a very well orchestrated move by the government to take LEAs out of action and replace with — in most cases individuals who they would like to see in place and who will help in the eventual break up of national pay bargaining, union involvement and hence, ultimate control over the sector leading to piecemeal privatisation. Back in the 90s Deleuze wrote a fantastic article about Societies of Control, developed to ensure the corprotisation of society – these are the opening salvos, aided and abetted by a right wing / ambivalent media who seem to allow all of this to happen with no public critique.

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