It is now over five years since the Coalition embarked on its ambitious expansion of New Labour’s Academies programme, which has so far seen around two-thirds of secondary and one fifth of primary schools obtain greater autonomy either through choice or, more recently, compulsion.[1]

In the immediate space following the 2010 General Election this policy was initially viewed as an education element within the broader Government agenda of ‘localism’ (that spawned initiatives such as Community Budgets, and has led more recently to the planned devolution of powers to regions and areas such as Greater Manchester and Cornwall).  However, some in the sector were concerned that Academisation in itself would necessarily lead to greater central control of education as the principal effect of the policy would be to cut out the ‘middle tier’ – in this case being the local authority.

In fairness the local authority role in providing education had been in decline long before Coalition policy – with the Blair government proving especially zealous in its pursuit of greater control over the performance of schools.  Even the most ardent opponent of the Academies programme would not try to argue that local education authorities have always proved capable of delivering to the highest standards either with individual schools or through their local administration.  However, the Academies programme has provided an alternative ideological solution for the improvement of school standards, which has threatened the very existence of local education authorities.

Does this matter?  After all, with the original Academies initiative beginning as a Labour policy way back in 2000 the policy does not seem to have sparked a total collapse in the English education system in the subsequent fifteen years.  Indeed most commentators are agreed that school performance has improved in this time according to just about any measure going.[2]  But there are perhaps some aspects of change which need to be monitored more closely if we are to understand the real impact arising from the Academies programme.

First is the practical issue around how to replace the extensive role previously/currently played by local authorities in practical administration – most pertinently replicating the benefits that come from schools acting together for mutual benefit.  Academies are granted their budgets in full, rather than via their local authority where an estimated 5-10% of the Dedicated Schools Grant (DSG) is retained for providing services.  In theory schools are free to buy back services from their council, or look to other providers.  This can present challenges for some, though, in achieving the economies of scale that the LA could previously offer, which is thought to be a key reason primaries have been less enthusiastic about embracing Academy powers.  The benefits for a small rural primary school of being a part of the local authority payroll system, or harnessing the collective bargaining power of other local schools when negotiating service contracts are easy to understand.  It is not surprising they are lukewarm about the idea of going it alone.

Of course, the expected solution to this is the ongoing growth of Academy chains which will eventually replace the local authority role of collective support, simply changing the grouping of schools from one of geography to one of incorporation.  However, this does not solve the immediate complications arising from a mixed economy of schools in the short-term and it also fails to appreciate the full extent of the stability needed at different levels in the education system for it to thrive.

Yes, many Academy chains and sponsors have proved efficient so far at providing an administrative framework for their schools and in many cases fostering a cultural or ideological identity around their ‘brand’.  But there are other facets of the local authority role which can be difficult to replicate in a more corporatized environment.

Planning school places is one: the introduction of Free Schools (Academies commissioned centrally but imposed locally) has not caused, but has arguably failed to help, the ongoing crisis in school places as now local authorities cannot guarantee resources will always link up with their local demographic growth or in line with other community planning initiatives.  School admissions is another: as more academies retain their own DSG in full, will local authorities be able to continue to co-ordinate school admissions without charging schools, who may not want to pay?

More ideologically, though, are questions raised around school governance.  One effect of Academisation is that in localising powers directly to schools, there is a risk this may lead to a shift in the influence behind school decision-making.  After all the school’s principal constituents are its pupils and their families, not the community as a whole.  What does this mean for decisions which may bring the two constituencies into conflict – perhaps over the installation of a new football pitch that improves school facilities, but where the proposal is nominally funded by hiring the pitch out in the evenings, likely to cause disruption to the local community through noise, lighting etc? 

Matters such as this are the lifeblood of local councillors, elected by the community to arbitrate between different factions in society on behalf of the people as a whole.  But it is easy to see that whilst most Head Teachers and Governing Bodies would no doubt protest that extensive guidance stresses they must take into account considerations from the local community when making decisions, they are ultimately unelected officials who are naturally likely to prioritise the needs of their pupils and their families above other sections of the community.

The need for a new ‘middle tier’ to help address concerns such as the above started to be discussed a couple of years into the Academies programme.  In its February 2014 Children’s Manifesto, Children England put forward a policy of its own in this regard, drawn from the expertise of its membership – a vision of democratically elected Regional Education Commissioners, responsible for oversight of education more broadly, who would be both ultimate arbiter and accountable politician to provide a bridge between the Secretary of State and the 24,000+ schools in England.

Amazingly, by the following autumn the Government had introduced eight Regional Schools Commissioners (RSC) responsible for the development of Academies, but so far these have fallen short of our expectation.  Without a proper democratic mandate it is hardly surprising that a recent Education Select Committee report found as many as 9 out of 10 parents were unclear about the role of RSCs or that “…the oversight system [for schools] is now confused, fragmented, and lacking in transparency.”[3]

Children England urges Government in the spirit of the localism agenda to consider making RSCs elected officials responsible for local education in the same way as Police and Crime Commissioners oversee local policing.  If we don’t, we may need to reconsider what the remnants of our local education authorities can still do to mitigate the problems of the middle tier before it’s too late.

[1] Based on data from the Department of Education:

[2] In the Ofsted Report Unseen Children released in 2013, Chief Inspector Michael Wilshaw wrote “…our education system has undoubtedly got much better over the past 20 years and now serves many children well…”