School accountability is both local and national

27 March 2015

Accountability is both local and national. First and foremost, it is local. This is in terms of the right to have a voice and, where necessary, to give parents and pupils redress. Yet overwhelmingly, and especially at present, accountability is seen at a national level. The Secretary of State holds thousands of funding agreements and oversight is in the hands of the Education Funding Agency and Regional School Commissioners, not to mention the separate role of Ofsted.

In addition, the role of Ofqual has grown out of all recognition and the examination companies seek to make sense of curriculum changes and programmes of study driven not by consensus, but by diktat from the centre.

But without taking away autonomy or responsibility from head teachers and multi academy trusts, it could be different.

We could have a system (we’re into systems at the moment) where schools collaborate together to spread best practise, to learn from each other and to throw up the kind of leadership and partnership arrangements as with multi academy trusts, school chains, and the like. These generate a shared approach to providing support services but also drive up standards by cooperating on common challenges.

This was the lesson of the London Challenge, the Manchester Challenge and the work of those collaborating across schools and with their local authority, in successful areas such as Wigan, Tower Hamlets or Hertfordshire.

Schools free to choose where they should draw down support, advice and essential services, while maintaining the freedom to innovate, experiment and motivate.

But somewhere, somehow, there has to be the ability to broker partnership; to commission new provision where it is needed; to hold to account where that is necessary; and yes, to protect the public purse.

That is why in my report to the leader of the Labour Party and Tristram Hunt, the Shadow Education Secretary, I recommended a light touch approach which would replicate the London Challenge. A locally appointed independent Director of Schools Standards would be held to account locally, but would have respect at a national level.

Schools would retain the freedoms they have but to progress rather than regress.

A light-touch national curriculum would be developed, extended and built on, and intervention – to coin a phrase of Professor Michael Barber – would be in inverse proportion to success.

The best examples of cooperation between schools in developing partnership arrangements, and the supportive role of the most successful local authorities, would complement the genuinely innovative academies and free schools whose role (or existence) would not be threatened.

There would be, of course, a presumption that all schools would be treated fairly and that oversight and accountability arrangements would be common to all schools. There would be no presumption for or against any particular sponsor when new provision was commissioned through an open and transparent process.

The need to work together in areas such as the provision of special needs education, or the absolutely essential area of delivering high quality continuing professional development, is in my view unanswerable.

The delicate balance of competing to be the best whilst cooperating to make the best available to all, is perfectly manageable in a world where the education system and structures we demonstrate set an example to the young people we nurture into adulthood.

Quite simply, the choice we make is what kind of world we want to live in, how we want to behave towards each other and therefore how we replicate that in the way to deliver the essential service of educating the future generation.

Rt Hon David Blunkett MP, Former Secretary of State for Education and Employment

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