Local authorities could be the “missing link” in supporting autonomous schools – ADCS

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Local authorities could be the missing link in a system of autonomous schools, Directors of Children’s Services said today. Publishing two research reports into effective school improvement, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services calls for every local authority to use both statutory powers and moral influence to hold schools to account when standards decline.

The two reports identify where local authorities have been successful in supporting school improvement in the past, and what they need to do to work with academies as well as maintained schools in the future. The research identifies the characteristics of an effective local authority, where few schools perform poorly, and many are outstanding. These authorities made little use of statutory warning notices, preferring to use their influence and moral authority to tackle decline earlier than their statutory powers allow.

These authorities work in partnership with schools to:

  • facilitate school-to-school support and sponsorship packages for schools causing concern.
  • make strong use of performance data and soft intelligence about what is going on in schools;
  • encourage and support the building of a collaborative system of school improvement to share good practice;
  • challenge heads and governors to explain and improve where performance is declining;
  • act early and robustly where there is evidence of decline; and
  • focus on school leadership, present and future, to sustain high performance.

Both reports highlight concerns among headteachers, governors and local government officials that there are risks involved in increasing school
autonomy whether through the academy programme or a reduced role for the local authority with maintained schools.

These risks include:

  • inability to spot decline before it damages the education of pupils;
  • failure to cope with the impending “policy storm” of changes to curriculum, qualifications and league tables;
  • unwillingness to take part in school-to-school support;
  • unclear processes for dealing with academies that perform poorly; and
  • reliance on governors and headteachers who might not have experience of a school in decline.

Matt Dunkley, Immediate Past President of ADCS, who initiated the research during his presidency said:

“These reports make a significant contribution to one of the most important policy dilemmas facing local authorities – what role should local authorities have in education? The answer is that local authorities are shaping their role for themselves, in partnership with schools, including academies, who see the benefit of a community working for the benefit of all children in it. They are seeking to mitigate the risks introduced with more autonomy by building constructive, challenging relationships with headteachers and governors in maintained schools, in academies and with chains.”

“The most effective local authorities have always had good relationships with their schools, provided important links between central government and the frontline, and been willing to intervene robustly when things go wrong. This has not changed. However, it cannot be denied that some local authorities have not always succeeded in preventing decline in schools and that academy chains have sometimes succeeded where local authorities have failed – what is striking is that the methods used by academy chains and by the best local authorities are very similar: install or support strong leaders and good staff, make tough decisions about staff capability, make use of performance data and draw on expertise from outside the school. What is different is the power of the academy chain to intervene directly in running the school at a much earlier stage. That said, many local authorities have been successful in a partnership approach and we propose establishing a group of those successful authorities to support others.

“More concerning are the risks identified in the research for those schools which are not part of a chain, or are part of a failing chain – the lack of clarity about what happens to these schools when they start to decline is causing some concern in the sector. We are calling for the strengthening and clarification of the powers of a local authority over schools that they continue to maintain and increased clarity from the Department for Education about what happens when an academy fails and how that decline will be identified before it affects pupils in those schools. Local authorities will not shirk from using the information that they do have about academy performance to alert Ofsted when there are concerns, but we need some clarity about what will happen next. If local authorities are to be called upon to provide additional governors, offer financial support or arrange school-to-school support locally,
there should be recognition of that in the funding arrangements for schools and academies.”

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