Thursday, 30 May 2013

The Local Authority

There are around 150 Local Authorities in England, between them overseeing the work of approximately 28,000 schools. There is no set formula for how the authority should do this and the staffing structures, strategic plans, methodologies and quality of delivery varies wildly between them. Some LAs are highly respected by the schools in their jurisdiction, some are laughably poor, some authorities influence national policy, some have little impact beyond their own border (or indeed within it). As a school inspector, it is very easy to discern which sort of authority you are in. Just innocently utter the words "and the local authority?" at any point while talking with the Headteacher and you will know immediately by the look on their face.
For some reason, the South West of England seems to be blessed. Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and Devon LAs have all impressed me at some point for a variety of reasons. The Midlands is hit and miss, the North West often reflects a general distrust of councils and local government, London is barmy but with some shining stars.
Local Authorities used to appoint a Director of Education to drive forward their approach to working with schools, but in recent years this has generally morphed in to the irritatingly twee Director of Children's Services, to reflect the change made under then Secretary of State, Ed Balls, from the Department for Education and Skills to the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Of course, the very second the Tories walked through the door to Number 10 at the last election, the department was renamed Department for Education. Oh, how ill informed ministers love to tinker with the national education structure on a whim.
Within an LA, it is the norm that the Director for Education (or whatever) will earn a rather handsome six-figure salary in large authorities (they vary massively in size). I have no problem with this whatsoever in the case of a Director with real drive, vision and practical capabilities. But, and I will not be the only one, my goodness have I met some buffoons happily plodding along achieving next to nothing and pocketing the cash while they can. There is an old saying: Those who can't, teach. In education there are two other sayings that I can often see the reasoning behind: Those who can't teach, inspect. Those who can't be a Headteacher, be Director of Education.
When the Local Authority is good, it can be really good. They will recognize that their role is to be the critical friend, to be the support, to unburden schools so that they are freed up to do the important task of teaching children, to continually challenge lapse practice and put in place meaningful support at all levels. Many Local Authorities across England have such a reputation for excellence that they have been able to embrace a sense of entrepreneurship and sell their wares to neighbouring authorities, central government, the private sector and overseas. Not only does this bring in additional funding to the LA so that it can continue to invest and innovate, but it cultivates an environment of deep thinking and inspiration in its staff, making it a more rewarding place to work and in turn easier to recruit the best possible staff, thus creating a virtuous circle.
Sounds great, doesn't it?
Unfortunately, many of these authorities have not been able to work out how to cope with the recent cutbacks to local government funding and have misguidedly and shortsightedly decided to divest, losing a wealth of knowledge and expertise with the staff that they make redundant. The consequences of which are already becoming clear: standards will fall.
Some Local Authorities are not of the creative, forward thinking type at all. These are the authorities that conjure up the stereotype that inspectors, consultants and advisers are just a bunch of failed teachers or folk who could not hack it in the classroom. The fact is, and there is little point in denying it, that many are.
Some local authorities are sanctuaries for the unhinged, loopy or incompetent. But, of course, such is the cosiness of local government employment that you can be as stark raving mad as you like without any risk of losing your job. So, as though put out to pasture from the schools from which they came, scores of men and women in ill-fitting cords, checked shirts, shapeless frocks or aging suits, plod around the dusty corridors of county hall with the pressures of a real job long since lost in the memory.
This would all be fine if they were simply left to amuse themselves with crosswords and lovely cups of tea, but alas they are sent out in to the world of schools to irritate teachers.
This irritation can take many forms – they appear incredibly skilled at creating situations likely to make an otherwise calm teacher swing for them. Imagine, if you will, it is a Baker Day. One of the few days of the year that schools shut their doors to students in order to allow time for teachers to engage in some form of professional development. This is rare. It is rare to have time to stop and think, to work with colleagues, to grow as a teacher and learn new things. So they are precious. So why is it, then, that the dispossessed, the drunk and the lame that are the plodding local authority consultants pick these days to interfere at their most?
It is not my intention to put down LAs and their staff – I pointed out that many are wonderful – but I do wonder what their purpose will be in the brave new world of Academies, Free Schools, large federations, Teaching Schools and the privitisation of education. Where will these poor old luvvies go?
I anticipate that we are not too long off a national campaign to adopt a consultant. Can you home one?

Sunday, 19 May 2013

A Private Education for All?

I read a blog recently from Harry Webb, Why Conservatives are Wrong About Education. Although the blog is confused about what being a conservative actually means, there were some points that got me thinking. Really the post is about a top down, state-centric education system versus a free market approach.
Interestingly, Webb is arguing for the former – a socialist approach. Yet he ends the blog saying that all kids should be able to have the type of education those privileged to attend private schools have.
The trouble with this, of course, is that the private system is entirely about choice, it is entirely a market approach. Consumers can send their children to any school they wish and so are able to choose based on how well they think a school will perform for their child. And if the school is crap, they send them elsewhere.
An argument that bounces around a lot in education is whether schools should be able to be privatised and particularly whether they should be allowed to make a profit (interestingly, this argument often ignores the fact that there are already schools in England that make profits).
As a conservative, I do believe in the market. I believe that individuals should be at the heart of their own lives and should be trusted to make decisions for themselves.
So what if, instead of the socialist, top-down approach, we said that every single child can have a private education? What would this do to education and standards?
The starting point to this discussion needs to be to point out that economically it is entirely possible.
There are private schools that charge massive fees, but actually on the whole, the majority of the 2500 or so private schools in England do not. The price of private education has risen sharply in the last five years, but even now the average annual fees for non-boarding come it at around £11,000. And remember, this figure is skewed upwards because of the very high charging schools.
Now, in the state system the amount of funding provided per child might appear to be lower. But actually, it isn't.
I'm writing this on a flight, so these figures are from memory, but the amount of money dedicated to education that then goes in to the schools budget is around £64 billion per year.
There are approximately 8.1 million children in schooling.
This gives an average per child per year funding of around £7,900
But, and here's the real point, the amount of tax receipts dedicated to education overall is around £97 billion.
This gives a funding of around £12,000 per child per year. More than the average private school child.
So what if, instead of funding a Department for Education, Local Authorities, layers of consultancies, Quangos (or 'Executive Agencies' as they have been lovingly rebranded) and Ofsted... Instead of funding all of this... what if every single parent was simply issued with an education voucher for £12,000 per child per year? Parents could spend this voucher at any school of their choice.
Perhaps then, schools would strive to be the most attractive, schools might want to shout about their grades and extra-curricular offers and so on.
This is what running a private school is like. Having to attract enough students to make the venture economically viable. And parents having choice. And when consumers have choice, they choose the best they can get.
I'm neither advocating this approach or saying that it shouldn't happen, it's just that Harry Webb's blog made me think it might be worth a debate.
Of course, as a libertarian, my instincts are to allow the money to go straight to the parents and schools in this way. I baulk at the billions that are wasted and would rather local communities were given the ability to set their own destinies.
I understand that this is the socialist's nightmare – to trust individuals – and that they feel the need to control and nanny. But what if a free market approach could lead to bettering the life chances of everyone in our society?
I'd love to hear what people think about this in both camps. I'd be interested to be convinced that the socialists are right. Or a 'third way'?