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Chris Skidmore MP: The Local Authorities that fail our children should be replaced by Learning Trusts

SKIDMORE CHRISChris Skidmore is Member of Parliament for Kingswood and a member of the Education Select Committee. Follow Chris on Twitter.

Over the past three years, Michael Gove’s tenure at the Department for Education has produced nothing short of a revolution in education, with no sign of slowing down: the introduction of free schools, controversial changes to the national curriculum, the extension of the academies programme - and now further changes to make GCSEs more robust qualifications have meant that the Department’s programme for reform has been one of the benchmarks of the coalition’s success. With so much already being achieved, this should not mean that we should let our foot slip off the accelerator of reform, but to constantly ask ourselves the question: where next?

One of the most pressing problems we should be turning our attention towards is the large inequalities in performance between Local Authorities. Ofsted’s report last year picked up on the huge variations across the country in the chances a child has of attending a primary school ranked good or outstanding. While nine out of ten children in Camden and Barnet will get to attend such a school for those in Derby and Coventry that figure drops to just four out of ten, leaving the majority in schools in need of improvement.

These variations exist at least in part because, unfortunately, there are a significant number of local authorities that are simply failing to make use of the tools they have been given to improve schools. The Ofsted report revealed that of the three authorities with the greatest proportion of schools found to be inadequate between 2007 and 2011 - Leicester, Bournemouth, and North East Lincolnshire - two hadn’t issued a single warning notice. Looking at the 17 authorities where ten per cent or more of schools were found to be inadequate, it was found that only ten had issued any such notices. A similarly poor usage of Interim Executive Boards was discovered, with almost half of authorities having not used even one, despite having the kind of weak schools which IEBs were introduced to help quickly turn around.

A similar story can be told about the use of academies by authorities. Data I obtained last week from the Department for Education shows that the academies programme, which frees schools from local authority control, is often not reaching these failing authorities where it has the potential to transform the education of pupils locked into failing schools. Out of the ten authorities with the lowest percentage of pupils achieving the English Baccalaureate in 2010, eight had less than the average proportion of secondary schools with academy status in 2013, which stands at 50 per cent. For five of these the proportion with academy status was less than half the average, with Barking and Dagenham, where there are no academies and just four per cent of pupils achieve the EBacc, standing out as the most shocking.

These failing Local Authorities aren’t ceding control of schools fast enough. The next step in the education revolution should be to see more authorities that are consistently failing pupils and acting as a barrier to young people achieving their aspirations being replaced by Learning Trusts. This has worked wonders for Hackney, where in 2002 the local authority was replaced by a private, not-for-profit company after years of poor performance. The Trust has transformed education in Hackney. In 2010, 15 per cent of pupils achieved the EBacc, more than three times as many as in failing Barking and Dagenham. The Trust is also serving its most disadvantaged pupils well. Out of the 150 Local Authorities it had the 11th lowest attainment gap in 2012 between students on free school meals and those not who achieved level 2 Maths and English, one of the key basic achievements of a secondary education.

As more information is being obtained it is becoming increasingly clear that some Local Authorities are simply not up to scratch. As Ofsted have very rightly concluded ‘the quality of intervention and support provided by Local Authorities is too variable’.

With the boundless energy shown by the Department for Education there is a real opportunity to start making a difference by removing those authorities that are failing and continue to fail to provide their pupils with a good education out of the education system altogether. Instead, by replacing them with Learning Trusts that can be solely focussed on raising standards for pupils, especially in areas of deprivation where problems are often more acute would help tackle an arbitrary system where the politics of local authority control of education is having a detrimental impact on the quality of education available to children. If we are happy to stand up to failing schools, then we should also do so for failing local authorities. The removal of their control over pupils’ education would be a worthy next step for the education revolution. 


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