Democracy – or “passing the buck” – Coalition style

A fascinating press release from DfE just a week before the end of the school year (always a good time to avoid too much scrutiny). The newly appointed Regional Schools Commissioners (appointed by Gove, it must be said) will be supported by Head Teachers Boards (HTBs). Four members in each region have just been elected and the successful candidates announced. The DfE is trumpeting the 38% turnout as being an endorsement – it certainly beats most local government elections and easily trounces the pathetic turnout for the Police and Crime Commissioner elections last year. But, wait a minute, these are the headteachers of our most successful (allegedly) schools and, presumably, just had to fill in a ballot paper and post it off : is 38% such a ringing endorsement?

Most people, I guess, do not know  how these HTBs are set up and what they will do. As I said earlier, the RSCs are appointed – so far so very Gove – but then four members of the board are elected. In addition, the RSCs can appoint two more board members of his/her own choice and the Board itself can appoint two more to fill skills or experience gaps. So these boards are beginning to feel less democratic and more like self-perpetuating oligarchies. From an electorate of just over 4000, of whom more than half chose not to vote, 32 have been chosen, and, in theory at least, another 32 could be appointed by the Commissioners or the elected heads themselves.

So what are the Regional  Schools Commissioners and their Boards going to do? At first glance, it looks like they are going to deal with the growing numbers of academies and academy chains which are failing to live up to the hype, that they would maintain or improve standards. The language is nice and wooly and there must be questions asked about how they will ‘monitor’ the performance of schools, except via OFSTED, and how they will support schools in difficulties (by ‘schools’ they actually mean academies and, presumably, ‘free schools’ which are, after all, particular kinds of academies). According to the release they can take “informed decisions about when and how to intervene” but how will they know pre-OFSTED and what mechanism is there for them to intervene? This sounds like a function previously carried out by a local authority whose own staff would have kept in touch with schools and regularly assessed what OFSTED grade they were on course to achieve, and had the expertise and resources to offer support and intervention. What resources do  RSCs and HTBs have? What powers do they have? Who will be held to account if an academy ‘fails’?

There are many details unclear and questions begged but, in the end, this only affects academies and ‘free schools’ (albeit that, on the DfE’s  figures, nearly 60% of secondaries are academies and 12% of primaries are), right? Well, wrong, actually.

One of the RSC’s remits is to agree or reject new academies (nothing specifically about ‘free schools’ so, phew, John Nash still has a job!). So, whereas the Secretary of State, an elected politician and minister of the Crown, used to make these decisions, those same decisions will now be made by appointed heads and a group of heads chosen by other heads. Whatever one says about Michael Gove (and I for one have said a lot!) in principle, he was elected and was part of a government that should have been sensitive to public opinion. Indeed, it could be argued that Gove’s removal as Secretary of  State was, in part, due to pressure from many groups, including parents who objected to their views being ignored in respect of their children’s schooling. The new situation gives an unrepresentative group power over the future of state education in an area. These people will not be well-known and harder to campaign against: “Gove out!” had a snappy ring to it, “Regional School Commissioner, whatever his or her name is, and Head Teacher Board, out!” is going to be harder to chant.

To sum up, groups of faceless headteachers have quietly been set up to deflect blame from the Secretary of State when academies and chains get into trouble and have the power to make far-reaching decisions about local education without, as far as one can see, any influence from public opinion.

Certainly, there needs to be a ‘middle tier’ below Whitehall and above individual school level, monitoring and supporting schools, which should represent not the narrow interests of one grade of teacher in one type of school, but should take into account the views and needs of parents and the local community. I’ve even got a slightly snappier name for such a body.

We could call it a local education authority.

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