Commission possible, by Jim Knight

10 Jan 08
The government's Children's Plan sets out an ambitious vision for raising educational standards. Here, schools minister Jim Knight explains how a new approach to commissioning can help local authorities transform schools

11 January 2008

The government's Children's Plan sets out an ambitious vision for raising educational standards. Here, schools minister Jim Knight explains how a new approach to commissioning can help local authorities transform schools

Too many children in the UK do not get the chance to fulfil their potential, despite the impressive progress that many schools and local authorities have made. We need to raise standards further if all children are to have the best possible start in life.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families believes that this can be best achieved by strategic school commissioning. This will give schools the freedom to innovate and to build sustainable relationships with new partners, and local authorities the freedom to plan strategically and to challenge their schools to improve.

Commissioning is about raising standards and giving parents a real choice of good local schools. Councils are uniquely placed to champion the needs of local communities. They alone have the mandate and broad local knowledge to shape supply and demand, to drive change, and to maximise local resources in the interests of every learner in every school.

Commissioning is also about building partnerships across the whole range of children's services. We have already gone a long way in this area, through extended schools and the Every Child Matters agenda. We want to build on this success, and are working to join up our commissioning support across the department, making sure that the support we offer local authorities makes sense across schools and children's services. This will allow authorities to achieve the vision of the twenty-first century school that we set out in the Children's Plan.

Local authorities have asked how commissioning differs from what they already do. It is true that good local authorities have always used demographic data to strategically plan their school places; have given schools the freedom to innovate to improve standards; and have worked with parents, children and the community to find out what best meets their needs. What commissioning involves is richer data; actively encouraging parents to shape the system; drawing in local partners in sustainable, long-term roles; more stimulus from further education, business and the third sector; and faster action in case of failure, using the new powers for local authorities in the 2006 Education and Inspections Act.

While commissioning is a single process, it can be broken down into four distinct, but inter-dependent, activities: establishing demand; planning; implementing; and supporting and challenging schools.

Establishing demand involves ensuring that decision-makers have the right information to make the right decisions. This information can take many forms. It includes working with parents and children to identify their needs and what they really want from their schools – not just consulting on specific proposals, but maintaining a continuing relationship; co-operation with local groups to make sure that schools are at the heart of their communities; and using demographic and other data to accurately predict how many school places will be needed in the future.

This information feeds into the planning stage of the cycle, working out how the school system can best serve the community. This is about much more than making sure that there are enough places in the right areas, although this is important, of course. It is also about planning for long-term, sustainable improvement in the performance of local schools. To ensure fair access, it also means making 'choice advisers' and school transport available to parents so that they have a real choice of good schools.

The implementation stage involves putting these plans into practice, by supporting a system of self-governing schools and maintaining a real split between commissioners and providers. This might involve several activities – holding a competition to open a new school, co-sponsoring a new academy, finding new partners from further or higher education, business or the third sector for a trust school, or encouraging schools to co-operate more closely through clusters or federations. It also involves supporting fair access to existing school places, by providing an admissions forum, effective transport arrangements, and independent choice advisers.

The final stage is to support and challenge schools so that they serve children and parents as best they can. A commissioning authority will ensure that every school has set challenging but achievable targets for every pupil to make the levels of progress they need to reach national expectations. It will also make sure it knows what is happening in schools so that it can respond quickly to help those at risk of failure before they run into serious problems. It will also help schools to access other children's services to prevent problems for children turning into crises.

The reason commissioning is important is that it offers the chance to stimulate improvements in educational standards across the board. Commissioning isn't an end in itself – if it doesn't raise standards, then it isn't good commissioning. It is a flexible tool, which individual local authorities can adapt to their particular needs.

How will commissioning school places help us to improve standards? There are a number of ways. The commissioner-provider split gives individual schools the flexibility and autonomy to explore new solutions to their problems. When a school innovates and is successful, the local authority can act as a vital conduit of information, circulating best practice among the other schools in their area. But if schools don't use their freedom to address their problems, settling instead for 'good enough', then the local authority has both the arm's-length relationship and the powers to intervene and demand that standards improve.

A successful commissioning local authority will have strong relationships with potential providers and partners. Authorities can also team up with others in the area, to commission specialised services more efficiently than they might be able to on their own. They can bring in new partners, with specialist skills and knowledge. For example, a local authority focusing on raising achievement in the sciences would have access to a large number of potential partners, such as employers in scientific industries, research universities and even some charities. The relationship could be formal, such as with a trust school, or informal, for example by sending careers advisers to schools.

A commissioning local authority will actively seek out these new partners and draw them into the drive for higher standards. And it will understand that raising standards and narrowing achievement gaps depends on dealing with other problems in children's lives, and will join up activities appropriately.

The best way to learn about something is by doing it. That's why the department is working with several local authorities to run pathfinder projects, which explore how commissioning works in practice to improve educational standards. The first phase of ten pathfinders was completed in April 2007, and produced interesting results. Essex County Council held a series of meetings with parents, children, teachers and the wider community to gather their opinions on school organisation. Officials involved reported that these meetings revealed a consistent and 'strong desire to be consulted, have views respected and be able to influence... educational decisions'.

The London Borough of Lewisham's project involved the local authority acting as an instigator and broker, facilitating a partnership between two schools, one of which was in the Ofsted category of 'Warning to improve' and the other 'Outstanding'. To better understand community needs and target services and provision appropriately, Kent County Council has made innovative use of data to back up wider consultation with parents and communities.

This first phase of pathfinders was so successful that a second phase has just started. Seventeen projects began in November 2007, spread across 15 local authorities. Gloucestershire County Council is testing new types of parental involvement in the area around Cheltenham and the Forest of Dean. The Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames is developing an integrated strategy for its Building Schools for the Future and Primary Capital programmes. The Borough of Poole is looking at commissioning integrated services for children with a range of severe or profound learning difficulties, capitalising on the leadership of Montacute School to enhance its partnerships and services through greater self-governance.

Together, these 17 projects will provide an extremely useful set of learning experiences, which will inform effective school commissioning in other authorities across the country.

This is an exciting time to be working in education provision. After all, the futures of generations of school children are at stake.

Jim Knight is minister for schools at the Department for Children, Schools and Families


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