In part 1 of this post I outlined a few of my person experiences of working for and with LEAs. Given that range of experiences , what do I now think about whether LEAs can have a meaningful role in improving education and is there an alternative?
First, I am convinced that it is essential to have a middle tier or other structures between the 24,000+ schools and central government to provide some support and challenge, make key strategic decisions (eg. about school places), protect the most vulnerable who fall out or are failed by the system and provide accountability to parents and communities. I am also convinced that schools benefit from collaboration and that we need mechanisms to allow the best school leaders (and teachers) to share their learning. The fact that LEAs have survived this period of challenge suggests there is a role to play and that they are surprisingly (given the tendency to bureaucracy) good at reinventing themselves and responding to changing circumstances.
My experience is that at their best LEAs can make a positive difference, create a shared purpose and culture, raise aspirations, tackle problems decisively but sensitively, encourage, support and where necessary lead innovation, champion the disadvantaged and work across agencies to achieve more joined up services for children and take an overview of performance and intervene or commission solutions to problems, including from schools themselves. They can do this without inhibiting and indeed by encouraging school innovation and excellence. I saw bits of that in most LEAs (and still some of it today) and for a magic period in Blackburn we were doing most of that well.
However, as I described in part 1, there are many examples of poor practice and these suggest some inherent weaknesses and limitations. Do the undoubted achievements outweigh the ineffectual and even harmful examples of practice? Can the successes be sustained and spread? Sadly I do not believe it has been in Blackburn, for example. (Is that because so much of this is about the people in leadership roles and those people - politicians and professionals - rarely stay long enough? I am aware that I am open to criticism on this count – it’s hard to know because I’ve seen the opposite as well where someone has stayed too long and things have stagnated - I probably averaged between 3 and 4 years in key roles and it may be better to aim for at least 5). It may be that better succession planning is the answer (more in a future blog). However it may also be that LEAs are inherently unstable, particularly in the most challenging of contexts – subject to political change, the pressures on schools and staff, financial concerns, etc. The particular combination of people and policies to get the role right are complex and subtle. Perhaps most crucially, with LEAs having been under attacks of one kind or another for so long now, it simply has not been an attractive career choice and the number of people of real quality and experience to take on the key leadership roles has diminished.
Size may also be an issue. Blackburn was a small unitary – I could see almost half of the schools from my tower block office! There is something about being able to get all the headteachers in a room on a regular basis and have a meaningful dialogue, the LEA leadership being able to visit every school regularly, schools feeling they have a genuine say and are an active part of the venture. Small LEAs have not all been successful of course and there are perhaps a few large ones that have consistently done well – although not in my experience among those serving the most disadvantaged communities. Proposals for regional or sub-regional tiers will take things in the other direction. There will undoubtedly be economies of scale but if I am right that relationships and a sense of ownership are key then this could be detrimental unless there are other ways for schools to work together.
One of the big arguments for local authorities is that they are better placed to join up services. The big push to create ‘Children’s Services’ happened just at the end of my period as Director. In principle it is hard to argue against it. However, I have seen a loss of focus and expertise as a result. It also puts an even heavier burden on the key leaders. I used to believe that being head of a large inner city school was the toughest job in education but more recently I think being a director of children services has taken over – often responsible for well over half the local authorities budget and staff and having to oversee the most challenging of child protection cases as well as working with an increasingly diverse range of schools is a massive t/ask. That there must be processes and structures to enable collaboration across services for children is clearly essential; that this is best done through large local authority departments I am far less convinced about.
At the heart of this issue is accountability and democracy. Do we want schools and school systems to have some accountability to the communities they serve? Do we believe in local democracy and if so how should this work for education? I have no time for those who say, ‘keep politics out of education’ – decisions about allocation of resources, how schools are organised, governed and led as well as, at some level, what is taught are essentially political. In the end schools must be accountable in some form for the public money they spend and surely that can’t be left to national government or its agencies. Nor can it rest simply at individual school level. My experience is that school governance is one of the weakest aspects of the school system.
One possible way forward may lie in the development recently of more formal groupings of schools under charitable trusts. Most of these currently are academies but there are also alliances of schools linked to the 500 or so Teaching Schools spread around the country and some longer standing trusts. More on this in a future blog post but one challenge is whether such arrangements could or should be put in place for all schools and whether these trusts have sufficiently strong links into communities and local democratic processes to provide accountability and engagement. At the moment most don’t but it would possible to build this into future arrangements. (It is, however, interesting that some of these ‘chains’ of schools are experiencing some of the very same issues that LEAs have faced including how much money to hold back at the ‘centre’, how much freedom for individual school leaders and the sustainability of the leadership of the trust which has often been based around a charismatic and entrepreneurial individual).
A Way Forward?
In these last 2 posts I have tried to give an honest but inevitably partial perspective on LEAs and raise some issues which I think are still important for the future. Do I have an answer? Certainly not a complete solution but my suggestion would be to look at some combination of the following:
-further reform of LEAs, including investing in their leadership and clarifying responsibilities;
- expanding and improving the trust arrangements for groups of schools – including links into the local democratic process;
- considering a sub-regional structure for some of the decision-making and support but with the involvement of school leaders and links back to local councils.
Thank you, if you have persevered through both parts of this post. I do believe this debate is an important one and if you have some suggestions for the way forward then I’d love to hear from you.