Government poised to introduce local oversight of academies

According to Department for Education (DfE) documents apparently seen by The Guardian, the Government intends to address concerns over the “middle tier” of academy schools by announcing that local school regulators known as “chancellors” will be appointed to oversee academies and free schools.

The “middle tier” of academy accountability has been a subject of longstanding discussion ever since the Coalition Government decided fervently to accelerate the academisation of primary and secondary education when they came to power. The debate comes down to who is responsible for overseeing these autonomous schools. Currently only the DfE has the power to intervene in academy schools described by Ofsted as “failing”, and there is no equivalent local oversight – no “middle tier”. With more and more schools converting to academy status every year, the argument goes that the DfE cannot possibly scrutinise 3000+ schools effectively, so who should hold schools accountable?

The DfE think they have the answer, or at least they’ve leaked they have. The leaked plans supposedly intend to divide England into eight geographical regions, with schools in each region supervised by bodies known as Headteacher Boards (HTB). Each HTB will be led by a chancellor who will have the power to intervene in schools when Ofsted deems them as failing. The HTB will be based at the premises of a designated school and will have the power to investigate and change the sponsors and management of failing schools. The new HTBs are also to be made up of six heads from successful local academies and free schools, which would be elected by other head teachers in the region.

The sheer detail of the leaked plans suggests that the proposals are legitimate, and fits a pattern of the DfE leaking information a week or two before they officially announce it. The same happened with GCSE exam reform, essentially allowing them to test the water and give them room to roll back unwelcome initial suggestions ahead of officially announcing it, such as re-naming GCSEs as ‘i-levels’ (it was thought kids may mistake them for a phone app).

The proposals are also timely, as only two weeks before the House of Commons Education Committee published a report calling for the Government to address rising concerns over academy accountability before subsequently announcing an investigation into academies and free schools. The plans also neatly align with Gove’s philosophy of empowering “outstanding” head teachers and encouraging and forcing schools to adopt academy status. But an obvious criticism that is bound to be made about these proposals, should they be officially announced, is that HTBs will not be independent given that their boards will be made up of academy representatives elected by the schools they are meant to be overseeing.

Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary offered a vague response calling for “real local accountability”, arguably indicating that he would like to see a role for local authorities in academy supervision. This is a policy that has some sympathy among those who believe that local authorities are best placed to do this, given that they are already there, while of course the Government has keenly outsourced responsibilities to local authorities in other areas of public services – in the name of the “localism” agenda. The Education Committee also called for the role of local authorities in school oversight to be more clearly defined.

It will be interesting to see how the Government responds to any suggestions that there should be a local government presence on HTBs to balance this out. But given that the Education Secretary has spent the entirety of his tenure in office enthusiastically wrestling the powers of local authorities over schools away from them,  accusing them in the process of being “happy with failure”, he is unlikely to be sympathetic to any such a compromise.

Oliver Cardinali