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We need to maintain local control of schools

The announcement in the 2016 budget that all schools must become academies by 2020, or have plans to do so by 2022, has left many angered and frustrated.

For one of my teacher friends, the frustration comes from the assertion by the chancellor that academies produce better results, while the evidence does not support this, particularly when it comes to more disadvantaged students. For others, the lack of transparency in how these academies operate is a real concern.

At the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES), we see first hand how local control and local solutions typically create better outcomes. Because of this, we are concerned about two key elements of the announcement: the move of academies from local authority control, and the fact that academies will no longer be required to have parents sitting on their governing board.

In terms of the move away from local authority control, there is a risk that this will create a haphazard system that creates poorer outcomes for the next generation, not better. For example, local authorities will still be responsible for ensuring the most vulnerable children get access to the education they require, but will have no direct influence on the pupils that academies decide to enrol.

Furthermore, from a devolution perspective, it seems bizarre that the additional powers over adult work-related training that will be under greater control of regions such as Greater Manchester will not be able to have the oversight required to link these responsibilities to the employability skills offered by local schools.

It seems that this budget decision has eroded the ability for local authorities to fulfil what at CLES we know is the most effective role that they can play in a place: the overseer and enabler of a wider array of local actors to create the best possible outcomes for citizens. By losing the link with schools, there are fewer ties with institutions that are fundamental to the future of younger people. This budget decision is perhaps not, therefore, as the chancellor suggested, a decision for the next generation.

However, the effectiveness of local control is more than just devolving powers to local government, but ensuring that citizens have a direct role in the decision-making that directly affects them. There is a growing bank of evidence demonstrating that citizen involvement leads to more fit-for-purpose services and institutions that can better respond to citizen priorities, via for example, co-production and via the realisation of powers afforded by the localism act such as community right to build. Yet one of the key elements of the move to academies was that schools will no longer be required to have parent governors on their board.

Children and their parents have the greatest stake in schools, so should be involved in the decision-making processes that are, in theory, intended to be for their direct benefit. We should be encouraging better relationships between schools and parents, and parent involvement in children’s education, not taking these opportunities away. Without the parent perspective at governance level there is a risk that poor decisions will be made.

For example, increases in how often a school sets exams, without the parental voice explaining the detrimental impact that exam stress is having on their child’s mental health, or moving to an earlier start time of the school day, without the voice from parents explaining that the local nursery has the same start time, and it is impossible for them to drop off both their children at different places at the same time.

Although there will no longer be a requirement for academies to work closely with local authorities or have parent governors, it will still be in their power to do so. If the move to academies is to truly create benefits ‘for the next generation’, at CLES we sincerely hope they do.

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