Time for Schools Commissioners
The growth in academy conversions and the rise of free schools are transforming England’s educational landscape. Schools have more autonomy and local authorities less power. But while head teachers have greater freedom, a massive centralisation of power is taking place in the school system.
Hundreds of schools are now funded and commissioned directly by the Secretary of State for Education. If an academy school were to fail, Michael Gove would personally have to intervene. In the long run this Napoleonic arrangement is unworkable and bad for school standards. We urgently need a new model of local accountability for schools.
The best way forward would be to create powerful new Schools Commissioners at the local level, starting in the big cities where they would be appointed by the new city mayors. New York City has a powerful Schools Commissioner; so should London, Birmingham, Manchester and our other great English cities.
Schools Commissioners would not be involved in managing schools, but instead act as local champions for standards, monitoring the performance of all schools in their areas, whether academies, free schools or local authority schools, and intervening where schools were failing or coasting. They would have access to school improvement resources that currently sit with the Department for Education, calling in specialist teaching support or experienced advisers for head teachers, and if necessary, ordering changes to a school’s leadership or governance.
Commissioners would be visible champions for local parents. They would have control over school admissions with a duty to ensure fair access and the power to approve new schools in an area, to ensure local needs are being properly met.
Who would these new Commissioners be? The ideal commissioners would be successful head teachers, such as Sir Michael Wilshaw, who have a proven track record of turning round struggling schools. Or indeed they could be innovative education policymakers, such as the former Schools Minister Andrew Adonis. There is no shortage of potential candidates: what we need now is a commitment from government to address the local accountability gap in our schools system.