Concerns over failing schools make no impact on local elections

Politicians in councils ranked among the worst in the country for school performance held on to their seats at last week’s local elections.

Political parties at 11 of 14 councils identified as having poorly performing schools held on to power on Thursday.

Just three had a change in control: Wirral, Walsall, and Southend. The remaining 11 were all held by either Labour or the Conservatives, or remained under no overall control (see table).

The results challenge the argument of anti-academy campaigners who say that local democracy holds to account those failing pupils in schools overseen by the local authority.

It also follows a similar Schools Week analysis in 2015 that found four of five Labour councils labelled “ineffective” by Ofsted remained in power – with two increasing their majority.

However, this year’s analysis shows a slightly different picture with all 11 councils that held on to power losing seats.

We based this year’s analysis on the councils identified by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) as being among the lowest-performing in the country.

Alasdair Smith, secretary of the Anti Academies Alliance, said there were “circumstances that explain why the electorate isn’t seeing it as an opportunity to take action against failing authorities and replacing them. Education is not a priority.”

John Fowler, a policy adviser at the Local Government Information Unit, said it was “possible, but rare” for a local election to be decided on an education matter.

However, he added that any attempt to interpret local election results was “difficult at the best of times”, but was made “much harder” as Brexit had “divided most of the main parties and confused the electorate”.

Of the 14 councils identified in our analysis, five had all their seats up for election. In each of those cases, the ruling parties held on to power.

The remaining nine had a third of seats up for election. Of those, more than half lost between one and three seats.

We identified councils based on an analysis published by EPI last year that compared school performance and pupil improvement at every academy trust and local authority in England.

We looked at councils that featured in tables showing the worst-performing 20 bodies at key stage 2 and key stage 4.

Bedford council was ranked the lowest at key stage 2.

The council will continue to have no overall control, although the Conservatives, the biggest party, lost four seats.

Dave Hodgson, a Liberal Democrat, was re-elected as mayor.

At key stage 4 Nottingham was the lowest-ranked local authority (although the table noted it had just one key stage 4 school). Labour kept control, but lost two seats.

Leora Cruddas, the chief executive of the Confederation of School Trusts, said the public voted in “ways that are not determined by a single issue”.

“It is simply not the case that the public will routinely vote administrations out over a failure to improve local schools.”

The debate over democratic control – or lack of it under academies – was reignited in February when a campaign group opposing the academisation of the John Roan school, in Greenwich, south London, wrote an open letter stating the school should be “run democratically through local education authorities and that all our schools should be returned to local democratic control”.

The letter was addressed to the United Learning trust, which campaigners said was being lined-up to take over the school.

However Jon Coles, United’s chief executive, questioned the democratic accountability, writing: “Can I ask how parents have been able in practice to hold to account officers and members of the council? Who, there, has taken personal accountability for the failures at the school? Which councillor or senior officer has resigned, apologised or accepted responsibility?”

But Fowler said the essence of local democracy was “local people collectively having a say, advised by professional officers, in the shape of local public services”.

“School improvement does not come from the ballot box: no one stands for election on a platform of making public services worse.”

Smith said our findings should be used to make the case for a “different model of accountability”, such as Labour’s proposed National Education Service.

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  1. Owen Rees

    Nottingham has no mainstream maintained schools at KS4 after last year (it had 1, since converted). Damien Hinds is entirely, personally responsible for secondary school education in Nottingham. Nottingham voters clearly want a change in the people running their schools, as they have 3 Labour MPs and a Labour Council.

    • Mark Watson

      Kind of missing the point here.

      You seem to have somehow unilaterally decided that the sole reason the voters in Nottingham have elected Labour MPs and a Labour Council is because they want a change in who runs their schools. Nothing to do with the economy, the NHS, transport, foreign policy, employment rights, Brexit or any other national issue. And not any local issues like crime, waste, housing etc. It’s just schools. By this logic an area with Conservative MPs and Councils presumably is made up of people who all support full academisation?

      And of course the Labour party has made clear that it won’t be forcing academies to return to the local authority fold. So if the rest of the country were to follow Nottingham’s example there would still be no mainstream maintained schools at KS4.

  2. Mark Watson

    Time and time again we’re told that the problem with academy trusts is that they’re not “accountable” like local authorities. This is the first time I’ve seen an article actually look behind this trope and question whether this theoretical accountability actually means anything. Well done.
    The questions asked by Jon Coles are valid. Where can it be shown that any local authority anywhere has actually been held accountable for schools that in many cases have been failing for year after year after year?
    The desperate flailing by Alasdair Smith to come up with something to say is genuinely laughable. Putting his comments in another way “I know I said local authorities were accountable, but that’s only if people hold them to account. Which they don’t. But it’s alright because they could if they wanted to. It’s just they don’t want to.”