Today’s news release from Ofsted — about the failure of schools to us the Pupil Premium to support individual students — will come as no surprise to anyone who has worked at a strategic level within an urban Local Education Authority.
For years education planners at a local level have agonised about how they can get ext a funding through to those schools with high levels of deprivation; there is nothing new about the concept of the pupil premium. Whether extra cash in itself makes a greta difference is a moot point but the only real way we had of supporting extra need was through targeted payments in the local schools budgets. But even 20 years ago education planners recognised that some schools took the money but often failed to plough it in to extra support for young people. Some, for example, used the cash to stack up reserves to support a building improvement when many would have liked to have seen that cash utilised in the class room.
This is the very same issue that is today being raised by the new head of Ofsted Sit Michael Wilshaw. However, Sit Michael Wilshaw has a new headache to deal with — the deliberate fragmentation of the education system.
Twenty years of so ago — when I was the Chair of Birmingham’s Education System — we had to deal with this. In those days some schools were building up reserves for future expansion rather than spending the cash on new support services for pupils. Rising balances were noticed by financial planners in both the local authority and in Whitehall. Threats were made about taking the funds away from schools in this position and, of course, in such a situation the people who would have lost were the very same pupils to whom the funds were allocated in the first place!
It was the LEAs who tackled this problem head on. Like many of my colleagues around the country, I found myself visiting schools who were not spending the cash as it was intended. We talked to Headteachers and Governors about their plans for their reserves, why the funds weren’t being utilised and what their long term plans were. In short, it was the LEA who applied the muscle to those who weren’t playing ball. In some cases it was clear that the school had clear long term plans for investment that would have supported educational development and those long term plans were recognised. But others could not demonstrate a benefit to pupils and they were required — shamed in some cases — to start spending that money of students.
You might say that this is what you would expect from an LEA, they were there to watch over the educational system within their patch. But who does this today? Today we have an increasingly fragmented system with some schools wanting to become Academies and others being required by government to become Academies. With each school that leaves the local system the LEA sees a reduction in resource. The more fragmented the system becomes the less able an LEA is able to make these telling interventions.
So, will central government be able to take on this role? It looks unlikely.
A few months ago Sir Michael Wilshaw himself addressed the issue of support for schools. He made it clear that Ofsted could not fill the gap — there was not way it could — or should — take on some of the roles and functions of local authorities. So, who might?
Sir Michael has talked about the establishment of educational commissioners, people who would take on both the support and the regulatory role of LEAs, but it is not clear who these people might be. The early days of OFSTED utilised an army of early retired educationalists but any new service today is likely to be let under national framework contracts to the big educational and management consultancies. I suspect that such a system would be an anathema to many schools and parents.
Once again we can see the practical importance of a Local Education Authority and once again we can see real problems being derived from the ideological assault on local democracy.
I’ll leave my final comments for the media that cover this story. They should be asking Si Michael two questions. Firstly, what can he and his team do about it? Secondly, what should central government be doing about it?
The more devolved a system becomes the more subtle it needs to be in policing policies and ensuring good practice. LEAs have years of experience of doing just that. The Department of Education doesn’t. Whitehall tends to work by diktat rather than by informed local discussion and debate.
Today’s new item shows, yet again, why local democracy is critical to a school system. Nobody wants people in LEAs determining an individual school’s management system or an individual schools larding philosophy. But the accountability of schools, the debate over how we best raise standards locally and yet the occasional application of muscle should be done locally.
LEAs have shown over recent years that they are good at coping with change, both dramatic change and more gradual change. If government — and Sir Michael — really wants to make a difference here they should tart by recognising what can be done at a local level.
As with all policy, governance by prejudice is probably not a good starting point. It is time for the government to look again at the creative and constructive role that can be played by local government. And they need to make the resources available for that to happen. Otherwise the telling observations of Sir Michael will simply fall on deaf ears.