Why councils should check up on academies

There is an accountability gap in the new education landscape that council scrutiny committees could help to fill, just as they do in health, says Su Turner.

Accountability matters and is well understood within schools between pupils, teachers and parents, as it is between staff, headteachers and governors. The same is not the case, however, when you look at the wider system.

The Centre for Public Scrutiny has a keen interest in the proposal to give local government overview and scrutiny committees increased powers in education (Schools Week, October 7) and has been actively lobbying for the change.

Over the past nine months I have been talking with education experts, partners and colleagues about the future role of councils in education. The conclusion is that there is clearly an accountability gap and while legislation would not in itself resolve that, it could help to provide a positive contribution to schools locally.

Once the sole responsibility of councils, oversight is now a complex shared responsibility between many, including Ofsted, regional schools commissioners (RSCs), local authorities and academies.

Without local oversight there is no check and balance

This risks creating a silo approach to educational oversight and accountability. The focus now appears to be on either individual schools or multi-academy trusts or regions. The concern is that without local oversight there is no check and balance – outside the school’s own governance systems – on how the overall education system is operating at a local level.

There is a precedent, however, of how local authorities could fill this gap, based on the health system.

The Health and Social Care Act 2001 gave councils new scrutiny powers to ensure that local people’s health was championed and safeguarded locally and led to the creation of health overview and scrutiny committees in nearly all top-tier councils. The act places a duty on NHS bodies to provide reasonable information on request; for health leaders to attend scrutiny meetings and answer questions; and a right to be consulted on significant service change proposals.

There are examples from across the health field where scrutiny has played a positive role, not just safeguarding standards, but by being an active participant in improving health outcomes. Recently a number of health providers worked with local authority scrutiny and schools to increase uptake of childhood immunisation. Scrutiny committees identified gaps in provision and connected immunisation services to children in need. Their additional powers mean health providers want to actively work with the committees and they, in turn, fulfil their role as community advocate.

Scrutiny committees are the only place you can bring together all the right people to address a particular issue without pre-existing interests taking over.

It’s easy to see how this could be extended to schools. Harnessing the potential of council scrutiny uses existing local expertise and an established system to fill a gap in accountability. It is also a role that councils undertook until recently and that some are continuing. But new formal scrutiny powers would provide clarity of roles, consistency of approach and give the necessary powers to councils and councillors to do this job well.

As with health scrutiny, it would need more teeth. For example, all schools (including academies and free schools) must be open and honest about their performance, to respond to requests for information, to collaborate locally and to demonstrate transparency.

Scrutiny of the school system would be about more than holding local providers to account – it would look at how, strategically, all the components work together; how the RSCs discharge their duties; how local partners coordinate activity, and, crucially, that all efforts are having a positive impact on pupils and communities. Good scrutiny is about adding value, strengthening decisions and outcomes.

The government’s recent announcement that it was abandoning the academies bill was an important step in recognising that councils do have a continued role in schools and education. But it doesn’t answer how councils will carry out this role in a mixed provider and accountability landscape.

Overview and scrutiny should play a vital, positive role in the new governance architecture.

Su Turner is director of children and young people at the Centre for Public Scrutiny

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  1. Mark Watson

    So The Centre for Public Scrutiny thinks that local government should have a bigger role, and presumably receive some form of funding to do so.
    Would this be the same Centre for Public Scrutiny that has three Founder Members, one of which is the Local Government Association and one of which is the Local Government Information Unit?
    I’m not saying this has anything to do with what Su Turner is discussing above, and I don’t necessarily disagree with some of what she’s saying, but if the roles were reversed and a body set up by multi-academy trusts was arguing for a bigger role for MATs these pages would quite rightly be filled with comments about conflict of interest, hidden agendas, intentional obfuscation etc.
    Transparency should work both ways.

  2. Chris Patterson

    I agree that there is a need for an intermediate tier of challenge and accountability between the DfE and the academies themselves, and that RSCs are not yet equipped to provide it. But, with regard to LAs, its just not going to happen. George Osborne took such great glee from his notice that compulsory academisation was designed to extinguish the role of LAs in education in England. They might have rowed back on compulsion but the war on local government continues. In any event, LA education teams have been so hollowed out that most would now lack the capacity anyway.