A pragmatic approach to the ‘middle tier’

20th September 2012

Edited 25.09.12 to add post-script in response to comments by David Laws, Schools Minister at the LibDem conference. See below:

Edited 26.09.12 to add SECOND post-script in response to a new report on LAs and the middle tier by the LGIU. See below

As “school autonomy” policies shift power down to school level and up to Whitehall, both Fiona Millar (for The Guardian) and Robert Hill (for the Royal Society of Arts) have asked what this means for the “middle tier” in education, previously provided by Local Authorities. On Tuesday, a meeting of London Councils showed that new ways forward are already being found.

Firstly, the report notes delivery problems with Free Schools, particularly in finding sites. It argues that this problem will worsen and that “as the programme expands DfE will be increasingly unable to provide the level of support needed by parents wishing to set up Free Schools.” Given the current and growing shortage of school places it recognises that this is an area of concern to LAs and that these can therefore not just bury their heads in the sand and pretend free schools don’t exist. Instead:

Local authorities could commit to providing effective advice on viable sites to all Free School candidates. This would be supported by a range of services offered by each borough including auditing sites for new schools and providing data on demand. This offer might be further enhanced by collective arrangements to ensure that, where helpful, Free School candidates can be informed of options in neighbouring boroughs.

This sort of pragmatism is really refreshing to see, it shows that London Councils are not dwelling on ideological criticisms and are instead focusing on what will best serve pupils’ interests and exemplifying the collaborative approach which Laura argued for in “The 6 Predictable Failures of Free Schools”. In return, London Councils ask that Government should share information on Free School candidates when they first apply, a call which will be echoed by those who have been fighting for freedom of information over school applications.

Secondly, the paper argues that:

“there is a limit to the scale on which central government can manage from Whitehall. DfE manage performance contracts with all Academies. Central government’s ability to offer parents the assurance they need becomes more strained with each new Academy.  It will not be possible for DfE to meet its responsibilities once the majority of London’s 2203 schools are either Academies or Free Schools.”

As a result, London Councils recognise that there will need to be additional mechanisms for ensuring school accountability and strategies for early intervention before things go wrong. This is absolutely right. If we wait until Ofsted inspectors notice things going wrong it is too late and if we rely on spotting dips in schools’ results then the damage has already been done. Where LAs operate effectively they have a firm understanding of what is happening on the ground in local schools and they are well placed to provide the quick and responsive accountability (and support) needed. The London Councils’ paper specifically mentions the impact of “early warning notices” and suggests that “academies should also be subject to the same mechanisms, written into their funding agreements, to ensure that early signs of failure are acted on in whatever type of school they appear.”

Thirdly, in the context of the drive towards school choice, the paper notes that “parents will play an increasingly important role in the new education system… However, many will need support in order to make informed decisions”. This is an important point since research has repeatedly shown that school choice disproportionately benefits parents from higher socio-economic backgrounds. London Councils therefore argue that “there could be merit in investigating the viability of developing an information hub for schools.” To facilitate this they ask that Academies should be required to share data with LAs at the same time as the DfE and that this should include longer term destination data. They would also like to carry out financial audits of schools including academies. This is unlikely to be welcomed by government which has been keen to reduce such requirements, however, it is hard to see how any call for local school commissioners or any other middle tier could be fulfilled without it.

Fourthly, the paper focuses on governors and the importance of their local connection (something I explored in this report on school governance). London Councils argue that:

“London boroughs could commit to offer a step change in the quality and support for governors by developing a pan-London governor charter that sets out: plans to recruit more widely from the local community; to offer training and support for new and existing governors, where appropriate; and to agree high standards working with local agencies.”

If this were done properly it would be a god-send. I am convinced that developing strong, rigorous governance would be one way to deliver huge improvements in schools. However, an increase in LAs role in governance would seem to run contrary to government thinking. I therefore doubt that the call to “ensure that every state funded school, including Academies, should have at least one governor appointed by the local authority” will be met. Nor am I convinced this would be a particularly effective way of ensuring good governance in academies.

Finally, London Councils look at the needs of particularly vulnerable and challenging young people. They highlight the problem of placing excluded pupils in appropriate schooling and the importance of every part of the school system needs to sharing this responsibility. They therefore ask that Fair Access Panels should have “the power to issue a direction to an Academy to admit a hard-to-place pupil”. This call is particularly timely given the recent controversy over admissions of SEN pupils at Mossbourne . It is unsurprising that this is a particular area of concern for LAs who have found themselves left with many of the responsibilities they previously had but without all the tools to deliver on them, an issue flagged up by Laura back in 2010 with regard to Children’s Trust Boards and the “Duty to Co-operate”.

What makes this paper interesting to me is that it shows LAs beginning to reinvent themselves and the kind of constructive pragmatism which will hopefully address the problem of the “middle tier”. The onus will now be on central government to meet LAs half way by supporting them in redefining their role.


London Council’s key recommendations are:

1. Enabling continued school improvement, by:

  • Establishing education improvement partnerships across London

  • Offering targeted support to help local authorities adopt new approaches and work with schools to facilitate higher performance, through the Sector Led Improvement programme

  • Enabling local authorities to issue early warning notices to Academies, in the same way they can with maintained schools

2. Meet the growing demand for school places, by:

-Facilitating greater dialogue between local authorities and Free School groups.

  • Auditing available sites for new schools.

  • Identifying and promoting innovative practice in using space for learning, including bringing in private sector expertise on board, where appropriate.

  • Mapping empty buildings that have the potential to be transformed into schools.

  • Sharing of early information on Free School groups by Government


3. Make the education system more accessible to parents and the local community, by:

  • Making a commitment to all parents that, wherever they live in London, there is a visible mechanism for influence in the local school system.

  • Investigating the viability and value of an online hub giving London parents detailed information about all schools in London.

  • Ensuring Academies share the same data and statistical returns with local authorities at the same time that they make them available to the Department for Education

  • Making schools accountable for the onward destination of their pupils

-Giving local authorities the powers to order a financial audit or investigation for Academies, as they can currently with maintained schools.


4. Increase engagement of community governors in all schools, by:

  • Developing a charter for their governors setting out:
  • plans to recruit more widely from the local community
  • offer of training and support for new and existing governors, where appropriate
  • agreed high standards of working with local agencies
  • Ensuring that all state funded schools, including Academies, have at least one governor appointed by the local authority on behalf of the wider community.

5. Support vulnerable children to achieve positive outcomes, by:

  • Continuing to deliver a broad range of children’s services in line with their statutory duties

  • Providing Fair Access Panels with the power to issue a direction to an Academy to admit a hard-to-place pupil, as they currently do with maintained schools


You can download the full report here


David Laws on the “middle tier”

Post script- 25/09/12: The excellent Children and Young People Now magazine have just reported on a fringe at the Lib Dem conference at which the Schools Minister echoed many of the points made above.

“We need something else beyond the Department for Education (DfE), Ofsted and schools”
“I think the risk is that autonomy and freedom to innovate don’t necessarily mean we will have innovation and great schools…We have to have a mechanism to intervene if schools are weak.”
“At the moment there is an assumption that all of that can potentially be done by the DfE, but that is one hell of a challenge to do it all from Westminster and Whitehall.
“While the department has for some time been willing to get quite involved in a small number of schools – to do it with 5,000 or 10,000 schools is a totally different proposition.”
Jon Coles who is Chief Exec of the United Learning Trust and used to be Director General of Standards at the DfE also argued that:
“There is a very clear role for local authorities…There are three or four areas where they should be exercising powers.”
I recommend reading the full article here

The LGIU releases a report on LAs and the ‘middle-tier’

The LGIU (Local Government Information Unit) has just published it’s own report on the middle-tier. Findings include :

  • Admissions and accountability are two key areas where a middle-tier is needed.

  • The remit of local government should be reduced compared to the past e.g. not necessarily include school improvement, partnerships  of schools are better placed to do this.

  • LAs are better placed to provide strategic management (e.g. supply and demand for places) and accountability for tens-of-thousands of schools than central government

  • Governing bodies are not sufficiently independent to provide these functions.

  • It is debateable whether it is better to create a new middle-tier (with its cost implications) or whether to reform current LAs.

  • There is little appetite for new elected school commissioners (a policy considered by Labour early on in opposition)

  • Given that over half of academies are single bodies rather than chains, the hope that chains will take over middle tier functions has not been fulfilled

Participants in the research included: Lucy Heller,Tim Brighouse, Melissa Benn and Jon Coles. The full report includes a series of interesting concluding essays.