Who’s watching our schools?

1 Dec 14
Melissa Benn

Failures at academy trusts are the predictable result of removing schools from democratic scrutiny

Back in October, the National Audit Office delivered a stern verdict on poor oversight of our schools which are ‘not delivering value for money’. Bodies indicted for this failure include Ofsted, local authorities, academy trusts, school governors and the government itself. The Department for Education, which now directly oversees thousands of academies and free schools, often relies on whistleblowers or a dramatic decline in results to trigger an intervention.

Last month, an NAO report on the Durand Academy in south London and 17 other academy trusts flagged up the kind of problems that can arise even within high-performing schools. Serious questions have been raised about Durand’s ‘complex’ business interests and the salary of executive head teacher Sir Greg Martin, which rose to £229,138 in 2012/13 (including pension contributions).

The NAO’s findings are not a story of avoidable failures or embarrassing one-offs. They are the direct, logical and predictable result of a school system that has been fatally fragmented, partly privatised and substantially removed from democratic scrutiny.

From 2010, the coalition government encouraged the conversion of thousands of schools to academy status, revving up the revolution started by New Labour. Inefficient or overweening local authority control was to be swept aside so that autonomous governance would flourish, driving up performance in previously poorly performing schools.

Things have not quite gone to plan. Local authorities have been run down to the point that they are often powerless to intervene in schools, even when legally mandated to do so. Ofsted can take a snapshot of performance but 15% of schools have not been inspected for four years. As single academies mushroom into multi-academy trusts, their performance is just as uneven as the local authorities they replace.

The government’s latest wheeze is the introduction of Regional Schools Commissioners to monitor academies and free schools only. Setting aside the irony of an extra layer of bureaucracy to enable the Gove-ian ideal of autonomy, the commissioners look likely to confirm some of the problems the NAO found.

Education journalist Warwick Mansell, who has been tracking the department’s contortions over these appointments, says the RSCs will set in place a structure of ‘opaque, behind-the-scenes decision-making’. They increase the ‘danger of powerful individuals doing what they want with schools without democratic accountability; the freezing out … of most education stakeholders from meaningful influence; and risks of serious conflicts of interest and cronyism’.

Early this year, the Blunkett review for Labour sketched out an alternative means of oversight: a sub-regional Independent Director of School Standards, covering all school types in a given area and responsible for intervention and school-to-school collaboration.

For many, the best answer is to return oversight to local authorities. Lessons could be learned from Hackney, once fabled for its chaotic schools. It achieved an amazing turnaround through a period of supervision and collaboration brokered between all schools (including academies). Managed at first through a non-profit making body, these powers have now returned to the borough.

Others argue against returning meaningful supervision to local level, in part to conform to that strange law of politics that one must always come up with a fresh-sounding initiative.

Either way, the challenge is to find a new balance between school autonomy, quality and public accountability. We urgently need a system that ensures early intervention, school-to-school support and regular checks on everything from safeguarding to potential conflicts of interest.

Melissa Benn is a founder of the Local Schools Network and a writer on education

This opinion piece was first published in the December issue of Public Finance magazine

Did you enjoy this article?