Education's squeezed middle tier

25 Sep 12
Jonathan Carr-West

A report launched at today's Lib Dem conference shows  'middle tier' bodies have been squeezed out of education, centralising power in the hands of the education secretary 

More than half of secondary schools are now academies or free schools: independent of local authorities and accountable to the secretary of state. The LGIU projects that the majority of secondary schools will convert to academy status by 2015.

Councils have, traditionally, performed a 'middle tier' role in the education system by taking care of functions such as accountability, admissions monitoring, school support services and place planning.  Academies, however, are not subject to local government oversight.  As more and more schools convert to academy status we are, by default, shedding the middle tier.

The government has argued that this reduction in local government oversight will 'free' headteachers up.  That’s more than a little disingenuous, however, as many of the current local government functions will simply be transferred to central government.

Ultimately, that could mean that up to 24,000 schools and governing bodies being accountable directly to the secretary of state.  In this light, these reforms look much more like a central government power-grab than a freeing-up.

In a new LGIU report, based on interviews with heads of academy chains, leading academic commentators and senior local government politicians and officers, we are calling on government to wake-up and stop its sleepwalk into the centralisation of the education system.

The report argues that, for a range of reasons, we need a 'middle tier' between central government and schools to take care of vital strategic and management functions.

The need for a middle tier is in part a question of practicality.  We do not think it is feasible for the secretary of state to directly manage 24,000 schools from Whitehall. As the research interviews found, there are a range of functions such as accountability and schools place planning that are much better delivered at a more local level.

But the need for a middle tier is also a question of principle. As committed localists, the LGIU believes that it is more effective and more democratic when decisions are made as close as possible to the people that they most affect - and when those people have the greatest possible influence over those decisions.

Schools are a vital part of our communities and schools policy should therefore as far as possible reside in those communities and not in Whitehall.

This commitment to local, community-led schools policy has consequences that are challenging to all sides of the debate. Given the different needs, resources and priorities of communities across the country, it is hard to imagine a one-size-fits-all solution to the problems raised in this report.

Our contributors proposed different ways of organising a middle tier. There was no consensus and we believe this should be welcomed. Each of the solutions proposed had merits and disadvantages. A future system may well be emergent, variable and localised.

There's no reason why a middle tier should be the same in every part of the country. What is important, however, is that we find ways to open up a democratic conversation with people across the country about how they want schools to be organised in their community, for their children.

Jonathan Carr-West is policy director of the Local Government Information Unit

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