Education accountability – time for a new role for council scrutiny?

Posted on October 5, 2016 by Su Turner.

Su Turner, CfPS’s Director of Children and Young People, considers whether there should be an enhanced role for councils in the future of education scrutiny.

Blink and September has gone! Four weeks into the new school year, and children are settling down to their new routines: understanding what is expected of them, knowing that they must get to school and their lessons on time and that they must do their homework – or risk the consequences.  Accountability matters, and accountability is well understood within the school between pupils, teachers and parents. The same is not the case however when you look at the wider education system.

Following recent changes to how schools operate, and with more reforms planned, there is now much less clarity and understanding of who is accountable for what and who has the overview of local education systems.

In light of this, I’ve spent the last few months talking with education experts, partners and colleagues individually and at two Centre for Public Scrutiny (CfPS) roundtables to consider the question of what the role of the council and councillors should be in this new system?

What was notable from the discussions was a desire from all stakeholders to make this more agile education system work and a keenness to resolve the problem of creating an effective and clear system of governance and accountability.

Speaking to Sir David Carter, the National Schools Commissioner, was helpful in clarifying the Government’s vision; he painted a picture of a self-improving system, driven by schools and the needs of pupils – with just the right amount of monitoring and inspection to keep things on track. All very well, but what seems to have been lost in this vision is local oversight and leadership. Once the sole responsibility of councils, oversight of schools is now a complex shared responsibility between many, including Ofsted, Regional Schools Commissioners, Local Authorities and Academies.

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

Could council scrutiny be part of the answer? We think the answer is yes and are discussing with education colleagues and other partners about how a more formal role for scrutiny in relation to education could work. Learning from and applying lessons from the experience with health scrutiny as part of this work.

Isn’t this what we used to do I can hear you cry? Yes, there are many similarities between how council scrutiny of education and schools was carried out before the changes, and how some councils are still continuing to operate. 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.

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 Regional Schools Commissioners 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.

All of the current talk is about systems and frameworks to support education, this is great but with change comes risk and we cannot afford to get it wrong. Children can’t easily go back and redo their education.  As a mum and governor getting is right is a non-negotiable so I’ll be working with partners and colleagues to ensure that the future of education continues to be answerable to the communities it serves. 

There is no time for nostalgia, practical steps need to be taken now to create a robust accountability system. Overview and scrutiny could play a vital and positive role in the new governance architecture.

We would welcome your thoughts on the future role of council scrutiny in education accountability – do you agree with our views, would it work, what changes and support would be needed? I look forward to hearing from you – su.turner@cfps.org.uk.

 

 

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About the Author: Su Turner

As Director for Children and Young People, Su leads CfPS’ projects and policy development relating to children’s safeguarding, school improvement and public involvement.Su has a wealth of experience in supporting councillors and officers in local children’s system to effectively deliver their scrutiny and governance roles.