Public Sector Focus


Why councils aren’t the enemy of educational reform

paul carter Paul Carter, chairman of the County Councils Network and leader of Kent County Council, discusses the need for Whitehall to work collaboratively with councils to deliver an improved education system.

In my early days as Leader of Kent County Council, the then long-standing leader of Oxfordshire gave me some wise words of advice “when working with central government, go with the grain”. Sound advice – provided the thrust of the government’s change agenda leads to better outcomes for our communities. And here lies a problem; there is real concern across the county councils of England that the recently published White Paper, “Educational Excellence Everywhere” may not lead to change for the better for parents, pupils and schools.

The thrust of the white paper is to compel all schools to become academies by 2022 and diminish the role for local government in the educational world. In establishing whether this policy is a step in the right direction or not, one must look at the evidence and track record of local government’s current significant role in education, supporting and in partnership with all schools up and down this country, raising standards and improving the life outcomes for all our young people.

I say partnership with all schools deliberately because councils have not run schools for many years, a common misconception. Schools of all types have substantial autonomy. Communities are served by a mixture of different types of schools; academies, free schools, church-aided and local government community schools.  

County councils support 50% of the population in England and have a proud and strong track record in education, delivering an ever increasing number of good and outstanding schools of all shapes, sizes and types. It is worth noting that there is no substantive evidence to suggest that academies out-perform community schools, or vice versa. However, it is essential that all schools work together to support all young people in their communities.

To sustain a thriving network of schools across our counties, they are dependent upon a whole range of essential support services provided by county councils which government has a tendency to undervalue and ignore.

Track record of delivery

Good councils have a strong track record of delivery in these essential support services to pupils, parents and schools. Such as, providing greater choice to parents in selecting a school place, reducing truancy, providing school nurses, safeguarding children, providing special education for special needs children, providing excellent value in the provision and building of new schools and classrooms and finally and most importantly, school improvement services that raise standards and attainment.

The government is suggesting that many of these statutory responsibilities will remain with local government, however it is clear some will be removed. We know school improvement being one of these and there is uncertainty over others, particularly who will be responsible for delivering the building programme of new schools and classrooms?

The billion dollar question is, if not local government, who else? Will it be a step forward? Will it be better, more effective and efficient? Equally there will be pressing questions about the funding sustainability of councils to provide these services, if budgets will be going directly to schools.

The government appears to be moving in the direction of empowered Regional Schools Commissioners, covering large geographical areas and by so doing, adding another tier of regional bureaucracy. In my view this will be a massive step backwards. Regional Commissioners cannot possibly have the intimate knowledge and understanding of individual schools so essential in building a strong working relationship. To date, the centralist tendencies of Whitehall, through their regional teams in the delivery of new free schools on time and on budget does not make good reading.

High-performing county councils are the friends, not enemies, of government in achieving their aims of better education for all. The prime minister last week was right to praise Conservative council leaders and the quality services that they provide to local residents. This is a record we want to continue to build in the world of education.

I hope that the proposals in the White Paper represent the beginning of a discussion about an evolving set of proposals to improve the education system; one that ruthlessly roots out poor performance, but builds on high performance already within the sector. 

It was therefore encouraging to hear last week Nicky Morgan stating that government is in listening mode and wanting to work closely with local authorities. Alongside a suggestion that schools not currently academies could potentially become a new category of “local authority academy trusts”. This is worthy of serious consideration.

Let us hope that we can find an intelligent way forward that “goes with the grain”, plays to local government’s strengths, makes effective and efficient use of public money, delivers change for the better and above all else delivers an improved education system that provides all young people with the very best education and skills to succeed in life. 


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