Who do parents go to, if they have a problem with their child’s school? This was the smartly framed question raised by Ed Miliband in this week’s PMQs. The answer being, he implied, that the answer for Local Authority schools is that same body, but for Academies the answer is ‘no one’.
The PM’s response was fine so far as it goes – school governors in the first instance, and then Ofsted (though I did think it odd that he didn’t discuss the new Regional Schools Commissioners, who will take on many of the same functions that Labour’s proposed Directors of School Standards would). But there is something of a head of steam building up behind calls for further oversight which needs to be resisted. And this is also playing out locally – for example, only today there is a row in North East Lincolnshire between Ofsted and the Local Authority about whose responsibility it is to tackle underperforming Academies in that area. So what should a full response to this sensible question look like?
Firstly, it isn’t true to say that Academies and free schools are not regulated. All free school governors already have to pass a Fit and Proper Person Test, which includes due diligence checks, credit checks, an enhanced Disclosure and Barring check, and potential checks by the police and security services. And there are specific clauses in the Model Funding Agreement for all Academies and Free Schools which require them to “make provision for the teaching of evolution as a comprehensive, coherent and extensively evidenced theory”, to “ensure that principles are promoted which support fundamental British values”, to “promote community cohesion”, to “deliver a broad and balanced curriculum”, to deliver an act of daily worship, and to “secure balanced treatment of political issues”.
Furthermore, once approved, Governors of free schools and Academies (and technically the Members of the Academy Trust) are in the first instance responsible for oversight of all the school’s actions. These schools are also, as the Prime Minister said, under the exact same Ofsted framework that maintained schools sit under. Thirdly, the Education Funding Agency monitors financial probity. Fourthly, on some specific issues – such as admissions, SEN, and exclusions – Academies continue to fall under the Local Authority ambit and the law. And lastly, from September, 8 new Regional Schools Commissioners will assume a series of powers hitherto exercised by the Secretary of State.
Where Ed Miliband is on strong ground is not that there is a specific policy or oversight gap in these arrangements – it is that the above paragraphs look pretty impenetrable to all but the most dedicated of parents! Over time, I think there is a strong case for both main parties in considering whether the RSC / DSS could increasingly be the main answer to this question for all schools– with local councils reverting to an advocacy role.
But hasn’t one lesson from Birmingham been that this arrangement doesn’t work in practice, as well as being impenetrable? My own view is that there have clearly been issues here which many organisations will need to consider. How was it that Ofsted apparently didn’t see the types of issues raised in their recent reports in their first inspections? Do the DfE have the capacity within the department to investigate complaints such as those? And for non Academies, why did Birmingham City Council, who after all has the type of local oversight of maintained schools many are calling for, not take action here?
The answer is not to create further bureaucracy. Indeed, such a reaction often does little to prevent future crises, but has significant costs in terms of time and money for the organisations that have to comply with it. The Munro report into child safeguarding showed that the blizzard of rules and regulations that surrounded social workers not only didn’t help, but actually harmed the children concerned, because it distracted professionals from focussing on their needs. In a school context, we know that 25 years worth of increasing autonomy for Headteachers has led to consistent improvements in outcomes for young people. Turning our backs on this would be folly.
As we have written before, there are big changes that should be made by Ofsted – strengthening the quality of both inspectors and inspection practices. Although our report calls for a shorter initial Ofsted inspection, it remains open to call in a full team for a further inspection that would last twice as long as the current ones, and would always include specialists (including, for example, safeguarding or governance specialists). There are also some big changes that the EFA needs to undergo. And the new RSC role – which may in time change or evolve into a DSS role if there is a change of government – should play this ‘middle tier’ oversight function. But ultimately, no regulation should unfairly trump school autonomy. And equally as important, no regulation can be guaranteed to prevent failure.