Report: The Future of Local Government’s Role in the School System

The LGiU conducted a survey of 80 Lead Members and Directors of Children’s Services in August 2011 in partnership with NUT and Unison. The survey focused on the future of local government’s role in the changing education system. It found that:

1.Two-fifths of respondents expect 80 per cent or more of secondary schools in their area will choose to convert to academy status within three years

2. Nearly all respondents believe that performing a “strong, strategic role” in education will require councils to have the following additional powers:

  • intervene in a poorly performing academy
  • approve academy admission arrangements
  • direct that a child is admitted to an academy
  • name academies in School Attendance Orders
  • charge an academy for pupils attending council-funded alternative provision.

3. Respondents expect that meeting the resource challenge presented by academy conversions will require:

  • councils to continue back office reform, commission charities and the private sector, and establish employee mutuals
  • councils to compete to provide services in other areas (50 per cent of respondents)
  • maintained schools to pay more for traded services (74 per cent of respondents)
  • councils to reduce the range of school support services available to maintained schools (64 per cent of respondents)

4. Nearly all respondents were optimistic about the prospects of establishing positive relationships with academies. Ninety per cent of respondents believe academies will continue to purchase council-provided services.

To download the report, please click on the image below (pdf)

LGiU research: The Future of Local Government's Role in the School System

 

Background

Around 85 per cent of England’s 25,000 schools are currently “maintained schools”. For these schools, councils provide valuable strategic functions such as funding, audit, admissions and attendance.  They also provide a vast range of support services that range from services for children with special educational needs (SEN) to school dinners and grass cutting.

The conversion of maintained schools to academies, however, means that the local government role in education is set to change.  Academies are schools that are funded and accountable to the Secretary of State for Education, not local authorities.  New LGiU research, conducted over the summer in partnership with UNISON and the NUT, has found that two-fifths of Lead Members for Children’s Services and Directors of Children’s Services believe that 80 per cent or more of secondary schools in their area will choose to convert to academy status within three years.

The government intends that councils will still perform an important role in education.  Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove has said that “in a more autonomous schools system, local authorities have a crucial role to play as strong, strategic champions” citing three areas of work: championing parents and families, supporting vulnerable families and championing education excellence.  LGiU research has, however, found that local politicians and officers in charge of education are not confident that councils will be able to perform this role under current arrangements, for two reasons.

Concerns about strategic role

Lead Members and DCS are concerned that councils will no longer be able to regulate competition between local schools and ensure fair access to school places.  At present, councils can ensure that maintained schools do not disadvantage other maintained schools by engaging in unfair practices (for instance on admissions).  This power to regulate competition between local schools will weaken as more maintained schools become academies.  Councils are not, for instance, able to direct that a child not on a school’s admissions register is admitted to an academy or approve an academy’s admission arrangements.

Lead Members and DCS used the LGiU survey to call for additional powers over academies to ensure that councils can continue to play a strong, strategic role in education.  90 per cent said that they would need new powers to ensure fair admissions and require that a child is admitted to an academy in certain circumstances.  One respondent argued that these powers were needed to ensure that councils could perform their role as “the local voice on standards, equity, prudence and advocacy”.  Over 75 per cent of respondents called for powers to open an academy, close an academy, enlarge an academy and establish a community school without first considering an academy.  One respondent commented: “In a champion of parents role, there is a need to plan suitable provision to meet identified need and not simply rely on the market.”

Concerns about school support services

Lead Members and DCS are concerned that councils will be unable to provide the same level of school support services to remaining maintained schools.  School support services are currently funded through a small “top slice” from the Designated Schools Grant.  Academies, however, receive this money directly from the Department for Education which deducts money from the local authority allocation.  This, coupled with intense financial pressure on many local council budgets as a result of current public spending reductions, could have a significant impact on the ability of councils to fund school support services.

In the LGiU survey, Lead Members and DCS reported a number of plans to meet the resource challenge presented by academy conversions.  The top priority was innovating in service delivery.  One respondent said that: “We have had a complete revamp of our traded support for schools, bringing all of it together in a single unit.” Another commented: “We have restructured Children’s Services directorate to integrate social care and education. School support services have been integrated into an education, learning and intervention branch that covers education from 0-25 years.”

Several authorities reported that sharing services with other local authorities such as home education, governor support and admissions was planned.  One respondent said: “Support services are being shared with a neighbouring borough so that they are co-located and provide the range of services with a much reduced team.” Another commented: “We have jointly appointed a principal educational psychologist with a view to developing options for a shared service, which may include a mutual or social enterprise.” In London, more fundamental sharing of services was reported as part of three local authorities working much more closely together.

Commissioning charities, the private sector and employee mutuals was the second most important plan. Many councils reported joining up with other authorities to establish joint ventures that will commission services from the private and voluntary sector. One respondent commented: “We have decided with another authority to procure a private sector partner to make available to our schools a wide menu of school support services.”

These “more for less” measures will help minimise the impact of the resource challenge that councils face on maintained schools.  However, most authorities were agreed that some adverse impact on maintained schools was unavoidable. Nearly two-thirds of respondents reported that the range of school support services available to maintained schools will decrease.  Respondents to the survey identified curriculum support, data support, school crossing patrols, education welfare, school improvement support for good and outstanding schools and healthy schools. One response sums up the general shift towards the provision of statutory services: “(My authority) has redesigned and refocused school support services on statutory functions only, for example in education welfare, the functions of enforcement of school attendance, children missing education, child licenses etc.”

Despite the challenges outlined above, nearly all respondents were optimistic about the prospects of establishing mutually beneficial arrangements with academies. 90 per cent of respondents believe that schools that convert to academy status will continue to purchase traded services from local authorities over the next three years. One respondent commented: “We are creating a brand of education with a range of suppliers and I want to examine the options of using our purchasing power to support schools of all types if they opt in.” Another said: “We as a local authority must ensure we are selling something academy schools want to purchase.” However, some councils did introduce a note of caution. One respondent commented that sponsored academies were unlikely to purchase services from the authority. Others expressed concern that specialist services would become unviable.

Differences between Lead Members and DCS

There was agreement between DCS and Lead Members on almost all issues. There was, however, a noticeable difference on the most fundamental question in the survey:  “Is your authority planning to perform only a strategic role in the school system over the next three years?” One-in-three members were strongly committed to this development but, in contrast, only one-in-ten DCS were.  Two conclusions are possible from this.  First, that officers are engaged in wishful thinking and members hard-heading pragmatists.  Second, and arguably more likely, is that DCS have a more detailed understanding of the practical problems associated with unilaterally withdrawing from delivering services as a result of their day-to-day experience. In-depth interviews with respondents, which we hope to conduct in the near future, will give a better idea on developing plans and how the relationship between Lead Members and DCS is developing.

Comment

Comments and feedback on this work are very much appreciated.  Do please get in touch with Laurie Thraves on laurie.thraves@lgiu.org.uk or John Fowler on john.fowler@lgiu.org.uk or 020 7554 2845.