Let’s stop eulogising democratic accountability

December 18, 2015

The diminishing concept of democratic accountability in education is much mourned by some in the policy debate. According to this thesis, what the drive of Academies and free schools has led to, following on from various changes since 1988 and the introduction of Local Management of Schools, has been a hollowing out of the democratic principle from education, in favour of a technocratic, centralised system with semi-privatised schools operating either without accountability or with accountability only to central government via Ofsted, league table and funding agreements. If only local people could have more of a say in schools, all would be better.

Whole books could be written – indeed, have been – on how we define democratic accountability in public services. For the purpose of this blog, let’s stipulate that what I mean is that ultimately, people in the democratic process can provide feedback to, or reward, or sanction, the institutions being held accountable. This happens via an elected intermediary, in the case of schools through local councils. Schools are therefore held accountable by local councils who have a strong incentive to perform this process well, because the councillors themselves are held accountable to the population via regular elections.

Fortunately, we have a way of testing whether this theory holds water. Earlier this month, Ofsted published a list of what they termed the “worst performing areas of the country” – 16 Local Authorities where “less than 60% of the children attend good or outstanding secondary schools, have lower than national GCSE attainment and make less than national levels of expected progress”. Pretty damning stuff. If I were a parent in one of those areas, I might expect to be asking pretty challenging questions of my locally elected representatives, and in turn expecting them to be challenging these schools – ie exercising democratic accountability. I might also be seeking to take democratic action against councillors who had allowed schools to get into this situation and not shown an ability to improve it. In other words, you might expect to see at an aggregate level, some sort of electoral consequence.

So let’s see what the impact was at the last set of local elections for the 16 areas in question:

In summary, we can see that

  • in only 4 of the areas was there a change in control of council. (Interestingly, in the Isle of Wight education was specifically credited as a reason, with the shift from a three tier schooling to two tier, and the low standards of secondary schools by Ofsted, being credited with driving voting behaviour against the incumbent party)
  • in 5 areas, the incumbent party retained their overall majority, including in Knowsley where they continue to hold 100% of the council seats
  • in 6 areas, the incumbent majority party actually increased their majority on the council

(Doncaster is not included in these numbers because of a change to the size and boundaries of the council but the majority party remained in a considerable majority after the election)

And that’s it. In other words, of the 16 lowest performing areas in the country for education, it was more common for the incumbent party to increase their majority than for it to decline or for them to lose overall control of the council.

Local democracy in education does not exist. It is a sham.

Ah! say some. That’s because councils don’t really have powers any more. They can’t take effective action over low performing Academies and Free Schools. So it’s not surprising.

To believe this is relevant, you’d need to believe that voters engage in a thought process which runs along the lines of “Well I would like to punish party X for poor performance in my local schools. But I know that they don’t have many powers. So I’ll actually vote for them instead”. This strikes me, politely, as implausible.

The fact is that councils do retain a lot of powers over schools – including for primaries, where nationally almost 9 in 10 primary schools are still maintained by local government (and around 3 in 10 secondaries). Councils also have, as of 2013, 198 statutory duties in the field of education and children’s services. And as Sir Michael Wilshaw has previously argued, councils do retain some powers over non maintained schools, including raising formal concerns with the Regional Schools Commissioner, DfE or Ofsted directly.

And I’m actually quite happy for them to have an oversight and scrutiny function, as champions for all children, alongside a coordinating function on wider education services. They are a natural port of call for parents and, on the whole, well thought of (although it should be noticed that their popularity with voters rather than undermines the point that people aren’t voting on education because they think the council can’t do much about it). I just don’t think this enhanced function can sit comfortably with simultaneously maintaining some schools within their scrutiny responsibility – which is a straightforward conflict of interest. I’ve written previously about how I’d seek to resolve this.

But ultimately, the figures above show that there is, on the whole, no sense of backlash or consequence for failure. With some exceptions (Isle of Wight above, and also recent council change of control in Hammersmith and Fulham), people tend not to vote on education issues locally.

So let’s have a sensible conversation about how to hold schools accountable, including the evolving role of Regional Schools Commissioners. Let’s talk about governance, and funding, and audit, and transparency of decisions, and sponsor choices, and parental complaints, and school improvement.

But let’s stop eulogising the myth that there’s a groundswell of demand for democratic accountability.

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