The recent expansion in the number of free schools and academies means that the majority of secondary schools, and a significant number of primary schools, will operate outside of local authority structures by May 2015. While both this influx of new actors and the greater autonomy on has generally been a force for good, a number of cracks are beginning to show in the school system, which is becoming increasingly fragmented. Some new schools are being created in areas that already have enough good-quality places, and questions have been raised about the quality of some new providers. Poor performance among some academy chains often goes undetected for too long, and some academy schools have become isolated from networks of support.
At the heart of these problems is the fact that central government does not have the capacity or local knowledge required to directly commission and monitor thousands of individual schools effectively. Consequently, our school system lacks effective oversight. This poses a big risk to the government's ambition of ensuring that every child has access to a good quality school.
International evidence demonstrates that an effective national strategy for raising school improvement must attend to the 'whole system', and to the way in which schools interact with each other and with other actors. Such a whole-system approach means attending to the 'missing middle' in England's school system.
This paper makes the case for locally appointed schools commissioners at the city- and county-regional level, responsible for commissioning and ensuring high standards at all schools in their areas. This reform would keep schools in the driving seat in terms of raising standards, while creating a better managed system at the local level that ensures that local needs are met. It would mean that decisions concerning the opening and closing of schools would take place in a transparent fashion, and that all schools work under a common framework and are accountable to local people for the outcomes they achieve.
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