Having increasingly ‘freed’ schools from local government, it seems they still need to be monitored. But who should do it, and how?

It’s now clear that whatever form the next government takes, further expansion of the academies programme is likely to continue. Equally clear is that the frameworks within which these more autonomous schools operate will have to change. It is therefore vital that, as the number and size of school groups grows, we understand why school groups succeed or fail.

The growing number of academies and free schools during this Parliament has raised several concerns about the monitoring and accountability framework for schools. In addition to the cases that have made media headlines, both the NAO and Education Select Committee have highlighted problems with the current system of oversight and intervention for maintained and academy schools.

This was the context for an event Reform held with former Education Secretary David Blunkett earlier this week on school accountability. The discussion focussed on the potential to create a “bottom up” approach to accountability, with schools and school groups being open to support and challenge from one another.

However, part of the school accountability problem was attributed to a lack of clarity between the various organisations overseeing schools. As a recent report by the NAO stated, the DfE has “not clearly articulated some of the roles and responsibilities of external oversight bodies”.

The responses of the two main political parties potentially only muddy the waters further. The coalition government’s eight regional school commissioners (RSCs) are designed to provide additional oversight for academies and free schools. Yet it does not address the diminishing capacity for Local Authorities to oversee the performance of maintained schools. It is also not clear how the Labour Party’s policy will complement schools’ newly gained autonomy. Blunkett’s proposals for 80 Directors of School Standards (DSS) does not appear to differ substantially from the role taken by local authorities before Lord Adonis’ reforms.

With Blunkett questioning the “spurious placement” of the existing eight regional commissioners, the main differentiating factor between the parties now appears to be the locality and level of oversight. Under Blunkett’s proposals, the DSS would work closely with an Education Panel with representation from schools in the area, parents and the Local Authority. Yet this appears similar to the current Headteacher Board, whose role it is to advise the existing RSCs.

Further  structural reforms seem inevitable after the General Election

Further structural changes therefore seem inevitable after the General Election. On entering government, the Coalition closed 11 of the 17 quangos in the DfE, either by abolishing them completely or by merging their functions. Yet since 2010, they have created three new executive agencies, with the new Education Funding Agency now taking responsibility for monitoring funding agreements with academy schools and overseeing their financial management and governance.

This is not sufficient. As became clear during the roundtable, holding schools to account requires much more than restructuring the oversight and intervention functions of different government agencies. Rather, it requires a fundamental rethink of what outcomes the government is holding schools to account for.

As both the number and size of school groups continues to grow, government must think carefully about how it holds them to account. This could go much further than Ofsted’s inspection of academy chains or the EFA’s monitoring of financial probity. Successful school groups have untapped information about what works in school management, from the skills of its governors to investment in continuing professional development.

We must learn from these groups to further drive up standards. Sadly, while pupil attainment data has been fundamental to our system of school accountability for decades, performance measurement has gained much less attention in relation to school groups. As one participant in the Reform discussion commented, England’s schools data is the envy of the world. It is therefore of concern that the NAO report highlighted that the DfE “does not yet know why some academy sponsors are more successful than others”.

A core focus for the next government must therefore be to understand what makes some school groups work and others fail. Building a framework that holds these groups to account will be key to the success of the school accountability system.