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What should be the role of Local Authorities in education?

King Cllr Russell King, a Conservative councillor in Wandsworth and a teacher in a local authority school, says the LGA are wrong to resist school choice.

The radical changes being proposed by the Government, in the area of education through growth in the number of academies, and the introduction of free schools means that Michael Gove needs to think long and hard about what the role of local authorities (LAs) should be in education moving forward.

The free schools programme clearly signals the education secretaries’ belief that the people best placed (in the vast majority of cases) to decide what is best for children are their parents. This represents a true devolution of power from Whitehall and Town Halls.

 However, the LGA disagrees with this approach. In a recent paper the LGA argued for a range of roles that LAs should play, in effect reducing the power of parents.

The LGA’s key arguments are as follows:

1 . Extra places cost extra money and therefore LAs should seek to match supply and demand. This goes to the very heart of the argument over school reform. On the one side you have the central planners who believe in matching supply and demand. On the other hand you have people who believe in school choice and therefore the need for significantly more places than demand in order to allow genuine choice.

The extra places costs extra money argument is based on the assumption that the school system is efficient, and that the best way to continue with an efficient school system is via central planning and control. For those of us who believe that the school system is riddled with inefficiencies, the answer is very different. Implement a system that by its very nature forces ever increasing improvement in standards, efficiency and innovation – namely competition. If the rationale of the central planners is correct then communism would by now be the dominant economic model.

2 . Councils should control admissions to ensure fairness. A combination of Whitehall and Town Halls currently control admissions policy. The result is that kids from the poorest backgrounds on the whole go to the worst schools, as well off parents pay a premium to live in the catchment areas of the best schools. This admissions process is hugely complex and very expensive to administer, sucking money away from children’s education.

The alternative is, of course, to allow genuine school choice and allow schools to set admission codes for themselves. There are several arguments that opponents use to challenge this approach. One argument is that parents from deprived backgrounds won’t make a choice, or won’t be able to evaluate schools and that they will therefore end up at the worst schools (i.e. the status quo).

However, lots of research has suggested that parents of children from lower socio-economic groups are very concerned with their children’s education and my anecdotal experience confirms this to be overwhelmingly true. Of course, it does not need every parent to make an active school choice.

Relatively small numbers will change the dynamics in schools so that they have to ‘up their game’. Additionally, many teachers specifically want to teach children from deprived backgrounds and many of the groups that want to set up free schools want to specifically improve the education of these children. However, we do need more teachers and more schools who will cater for these children.

Therefore, baring in mind the extra challenges these children come with, providing significant extra funding via a pupil premium, which schools can then use to balance the extra demands, will ensure that this happens. This will be more efficient and fairer than the current system or proposals by the LGA.

The other claim for government control is that children with special needs or who are expelled would not be catered for unless they are centrally planned for. For the same reasons I find this argument overdone. Providing a pupil premium at the correct level in time will provide plenty of choice for these children as well. Because it was recently topical, I want to quickly comment on ‘fair-banding’. I don’t want to comment on whether it is right or wrong. For me, that is beside the point. I believe that schools should be free to set their own admissions policy. If genuine school choice is available it is then for parents to decide whether they are happy with the schools admission policy not politicians or bureaucrats.

3 . Councils should commission schools. The LGA argues that Local Authorities are best placed to know what parents want and the types of schools they want and therefore they should commission schools to meet parents’ requirements. I find the idea that Councils can centrally plan meeting parents needs better
than parents expressing them through choosing schools to be ludicrous. Commissioning also requires lots of expensive bureaucrats to administer and therefore takes money away from children’s education.

4 . Councils need to be able to deliver non-educational services via schools. This is controversial because it takes away a schools’ focus on education standards. As if to prove my point, the LGA selects as its flagship example a school that in it’s last OFSTED got a ‘satisfactory’ (education speak for unsatisfactory)
for academic achievement. A better approach would be for schools to make these decisions for themselves. If Councils want to provide services via schools, then they should adequately compensate schools so that they can spend the money improving education standards.

5 . Councils should monitor school performance. In a centrally planned system as advocated by the LGA the only way to put pressure on schools to raise their performance, is to monitor it. This requires an army of bureaucrats and again takes money away from children’s education. However, in a school system
with choice where parents assess how schools are performing, they can vote with their feet if they are not happy. Schools then have to improve or face closure.

6 . Councils should act as a backstop if schools fail. An important issue to address is what should happen when a school fails for financial reasons. For example, you wouldn’t want to close a school immediately with hundreds of children scheduled to take exams a few weeks later. However, I question the need for Councils to provide this backstop. A better approach might be to create an administration process where a school can either be wound down or sold in an orderly way. The administrators in this case could from a variety of private companies.

7 . Councils should be able to prevent new schools based on potential impacts. As a Councillor, I find this one of the most difficult issues. New schools will often have significant impacts (e.g. traffic) on a local area. If local authorities cannot prevent them then how does this square with an ideal of localism? Alternatively, if local authorities can block schools, what prevents them from blocking schools that they don’t like or don’t want (especially when they will want to defend existing LA schools)? On balance, I come down in favour of severely limiting the ability of Councils to block schools as I believe the benefits of school choice will significantly outweigh the potential impacts.

8 . Councils should regulate schools. The LGA is right that schools do need to be regulated. There is a minimum that schools must (and must not) do. However, giving Councils a monopoly on regulating the schools in their area provides opportunities for abuse.

One monopoly regulator based in Whitehall does not fill me with confidence either. A better route would be to have multiple regulators that are registered and that schools can choose to be regulated by. Regulators can’t afford to be inefficient as schools can go elsewhere.

9 . The Council needs to ensure that there are enough school places. Councils have an existing statutory role in ensuring that there are enough school places for every child to get an education. In a system where supply and demand are closely matched, this is a critical role as sudden unexpected shifts in demand can cause significant problems (as many parts of London are currently experiencing) and therefore requires significant resources. However, in a system where there are surpluses of school places to handle changes in demand and supply, this role becomes much less significant with a resulting drop in the need for monitoring.

So what should Michael Gove make the role of Local Authorities in education?

Unfortunately as things stand, there will often be a conflict of interest between local authorities and genuine school choice, as local authorities seek to protect their schools from competition by non-LA schools. The LGA proposals are a symptom of this conflict.

One option that often appeals to Conservatives is to resolve the problem by making schools independent from their local authorities – i.e. make every school an academy. The problem is that many of the nations’ schools having had the crutch of LA support for so long, are dependent on it and would struggle (if not fail without it.

This would lead to a level of creative destruction in our education system that is probably not politically acceptable. That is why Michael Gove has restricted the academy expansion to only the best schools.

This leaves local authorities being responsible for large numbers of schools for the foreseeable future closing off this option as a way of resolving the conflict of interest. The only other way of resolving this conflict is for central government to prevent local authorities from being able to prevent competition and school choice and this is the route that the Government has taken.

The priority for Michael Gove when deciding on the role of local authorities moving forward should be to end the geographical monopoly that local authorities have on schools as quickly and as politically painlessly as possible.

This would be the best way to ensure choice and competition moving forward. Therefore, mechanisms should be put in place to slowly reduce their monopoly over time. The following rules could help this to happen:

1 . All new schools will first be either free schools or academies. A new LA school will be a last resort.
2 . All LA schools that fail an Ofsted inspection will be compulsorily offered to non-LA providers.
3 . All LA schools that achieve an outstanding Ofsted inspection have the option to become academies or become part of a chain of free schools (or stay as LA schools).

This will still leave a significant number of schools that will be under LA control for the foreseeable future. The LA should have huge amounts of flexibility in how it runs these schools including selling them off to free school providers, deciding on admissions rules, number of places, commissioning, how the schools are run, who provides the services to LA schools and what those services should be. This has the potential to increase innovation and creativity in LA schools for the benefit of parents and children. LAs that do not adapt and improve the quality of education they provide are likely to find their monopoly weakening faster than the more successful LAs.

The LGA’s centrally planned vision for education threatens to undermine school reforms making them virtually worthless. It is critical that this is not allowed to happen. Michael Gove should seek to reduce the monopoly by LAs and ensure that they have very little say over non-LA schools. However, LAs should have the flexibility to decide how to run the schools they are left responsible for. This will allow the Government’s reforms to dramatically improve education in this country for all pupils.

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