Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Reflections on the effectiveness of Local Education Authorities (part 2)

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. 

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Reflections on the effectiveness of Local Education Authorities (part 1)

This is a longer blog post than normal, but there is a lot to try to cover.  So I have split into 2 parts.  In this part I have reflected back on my experiences working for and with LEAs and in the second part I will use these experiences to comment on whether LEAs could and should continue to play a role. 

The Context 
I have spent the largest part of my career working for or with local education authorities.   I worked at senior level directly for 3 northern LEAs and under contract to a 4th.  (I will use the term LEA although more recently the preference has been to refer to Local Authorities, LAs, in recognition that they are part of a wider council structure). In my various roles since, I have also engaged with LEAs throughout the country including coaching a number of Directors and Assistant Directors.  In this blog I am going to attempt an overview and some reflections on that experience.  It’s an interesting time for this as both Labour and the Lib Dems seem to be developing ideas for a different ‘middle tier’ for the next election.  It is perhaps worth recalling, at the start, that almost from the moment that I first worked for an LEA – Kirklees, in 1986 – there were commentators predicting their demise and yet they remain a significant, if reduced, part of the system. 

Throughout this period I experienced examples where the LEA was clearly making a positive difference to the performance of schools and through them (or in some cases directly) the learning and achievement of young people and there was external evidence for at least some of this. (LEAs had and have other functions but this core area of school improvement is the one I am going to focus on). However, I also experienced dysfunctional LEAs and specific LEA activity which at best made no difference (and therefore was a waste of public money) and at worst got in the way and made it more difficult for schools to do their job.   Here are some examples of each.

The Positives – innovation, cultural change and improvement

In Kirklees in the late 80s and early 90s relationship with schools were generally very good, there was innovative curriculum development led by teachers for teachers, genuine efforts to respond to the challenges of an increasingly ethnically diverse school population and, in a collaborative approach with Headteachers, increasing funding and decision-making was devolved to schools.
In my first job as an adviser I had a boss who was passionate about child-centred and experiential learning.   Interestingly, for his time, he believed in freeing up schools and was an opponent of too much regulation and of any ‘political’ interference.  He gave me the freedom to develop my role and work alongside teachers to improve teaching and promote a relevant and challenging curriculum. 
Three years later, I was leading the Curriculum Support team.  Now that most of the funding was where it should be, in schools, I had to learn fast about business planning,  value for money (public money) and marketing in the best sense of understanding and being responsive to the needs of schools and teachers.   It was possible to do this and to be creative and innovative – in fact it was only by doing these things that the service could survive and develop. Almost all schools bought into the service.   I like straplines (see earlier blog) and at this time we used ‘A network of services for a community of schools’ and it really did feel like a community.  When Ofsted inspected Kirklees (after I left) they commented positively on much of this work.

In Leeds, when I was Assistant Director, we developed with schools a programme called RAISE.  This included provision of high quality, benchmarked data and a ‘shared review’ process in which the leadership, including governors, of the school jointly negotiated and undertook a review process with our advisory service.  This process, ahead of its time, was instrumental in allowing school leaders to develop their own self-review skills, provided schools with a robust but ‘owned’ improvement tool and at the same time improved the effectiveness of advisers.   In retrospect it would have been even more powerful (and prescient) if we had also included a leader from another school in the review process.   At the same time a home grown programme known as Sustained Reading Intervention had a demonstrably significant impact on literacy levels.

In Blackburn with Darwen (which deserves and will get a post in its own right at some stage) we – and it really was a team effort, including all the staff in the schools – brought about a remarkable transformation in the quality, performance and approach in schools and other learning partners.  An Ofsted inspection of the LEA, 3 years into its life, spoke of the marked impact on standards, outstanding work with schools causing concern and good relationships with schools.  The report said ‘ this is a remarkable, unique record that is not paralleled anywhere else in the country’.  Blackburn was awarded ‘Beacon Status’ for its work on school improvement.  The foundations of this achievement, in my view, were a strong emphasis on building open and positive relationships with all partners and in particular headteachers, a really focused approach to school improvement where a dedicated team of credible professionals provided the right mix of support and challenge and with the quality of school leadership and teaching and learning at its heart. The whole LEA was focused around ‘aiming high and including all’ and demonstrated high quality, people-centred leadership through the senior leadership team in education (myself, Steve, Jill, Peter and David – all exceptional in their own way but even stronger as a team) as well as an astute Chief Executive, Phil, who gave us our head but helped us to play a meaningful corporate role, key politicians (Bill as Chair and then Leader was particularly skilled at giving a sense of direction, having creative ideas but not interfering in the daily work and being keen to praise the good work of professionals) and some key headteachers willing to play their part to help other schools as well as their own.      

The negatives – horror stories and missed opportunities
On the other side of the coin, I experienced some very poor practice.   Bureaucratic procedures that frustrated innovation, slowed down decision-making and wasted money.  Politicians who didn’t trust officers/professionals, were more interested in promoting their own careers and made decisions on the basis of personal prejudice rather than evidence.  Senior officers who were protecting their own backs more than promoting the service to the public or who were well meaning but stuck in a rut and unable to see the need for change or perhaps not given the support to change.   Failure to tackle difficult issues such as struggling schools or expensive but ineffective services for children with special needs.   Disjointed approaches where people worked in silos and rarely looked for or found ways of maximising collaboration and impact.  A number of advisers in the secondary (and to some extent special) sector who had good subject knowledge but did not have the credibility or experience to advise or support school leaders on overall improvement.  Above all, too often I saw weak or unprincipled leadership (professional and political) in key roles. 

More specifically, in my early days, the service lacked rigour, there was little use of data (preferring  ‘professional judgement’ – an important  tool but only if the judgement was based on clear evidence as opposed to ideology ) and looking back there were some pretty poor schools serving some of the most deprived communities  which were never really challenged, effectively supported or decisively dealt with.

Then later, in one LEA there was a senior officer, at assistant director level, who regularly took his instructions from a politician who was not even on the Council but rather an MP.   That same LA failed to appoint a permanent director of education for well over 2 years and when they did an insider got the job.   Here also, I saw an essentially good education initiative around groups of schools high jacked by politicians as a way to get funding for, and some political leverage over, schools in certain areas of the city.      

In Bradford, I came into a seriously dysfunctional LEA.  I can name this one as it was all in the public domain when the LEA failed its Ofsted inspection. There were many good people working in education in Bradford but the culture was wrong, relationships with many headteachers had broken down, decision-making was flawed and little had been done to tackle serious underachievement, particularly in the most deprived communities.   In a future blog I will write about the attempted solution to this situation (involving the private sector) and my challenges and limited impact there. (It is important to say that in Bradford, even in the most dysfunctional period, there were a number of good things which the LEA did.)

I will stop there for now. I have included only a few examples but I think they reflect the range I have experienced. I wonder if any of this rings true for others.  I’d be really interested in your own experiences of LEAs whether you worked for one, came across them in some form or simply found them irrelevant.

In the second part of this blog I use these experiences to reflect on whether I believe there is a role for LEAs in the future.