There is probably no service as truly local as schooling.
For many parents the distance from home to school is the critical factor in choosing a primary school; few parents want young children in particular to travel far. Analysis of performance and school choice data shows that, on average and all other things being equal, if one school is even quarter of a mile further away from a child's home than another, its performance in KS2 tests needs to be over 15% points higher to persuade the child's parent to choose it over the nearer one.
Parents often feel great loyalty to their child's school. Polling data shows that parents consistently rate their own child's school as better than other schools in their area and nationally. So, however poorly performing or undersubscribed a school is, closing it is never uncontroversial and is often deeply resented much more widely than by those whose children attend it. As in the recent Downhills case, intervention to improve a school is often seen as an implicit criticism of the parents who chose the school, or even as an attack on the community.
So, for education reformers there is a paradox. Nobody seriously doubts that parents and local communities care more than anyone about the success and effectiveness of local schools. Yet often, apparently very weak schools enjoy significant support; while people who seek improvement in such schools are seen as the villains. Intervention by local authorities in weak schools requires significant courage as well as political will.
In that context, national government has acted increasingly assertively. The introduction of a national curriculum, national tests and Ofsted from 1988 created an accountability framework. The introduction of floor targets from 1997 established for the first time a direct central government focus on schools with low exam performance. Academies began as a response to the most serious cases of failure where transformational intervention was required; over the last decade, they have become established as the intervention of choice wherever performance is poor.
We are closer than we have ever been to having a national education service. With over 2,000 academies now open, a tipping point has been reached: more than half of state secondary schools are academies, and it will not be long before academies educate the overwhelming majority of secondary-aged pupils. At the same time, the number of primary academies is beginning to grow rapidly.
How to hold accountable that number of academies is a pressing question. Hard though my former colleagues at the Department for Education work, it is difficult to see how at that scale, they will monitor all funding agreements from the centre and take responsibility for intervention whenever there is failure. Part of the answer will certainly be chains and groups of schools, which take on many of the most difficult schools. But on current trends, it is unlikely that the majority of schools will be members of significant-sized groups. If groups do become very large, it is hard to see central government intervening in a group simply because one primary school is struggling.
Instead, we should take the opportunity of the current dramatic structural changes to create a sharper, more effective, more transparent form of local accountability. It is more important than ever that if there are large national providers, local people should be able to hold them to account for their performance in running a local school. And if there are large national providers, such accountability can more easily turn into effective action and intervention.
If some local authorities cease to be providers of secondary schools and become visibly neutral between different providers, then their role in such accountability could be significant. I can foresee a system where funding agreements continue to be held by government, but take a different form – something like renewable licences – and are monitored locally against agreed performance targets. Agreements need to be long enough (five years, say) to allow continuity, but their renewal would be automatic only if the agreed aims are achieved. If they are not, and a provider cannot achieve improvement in a defined period of time, then the provider will be replaced, through an open competition run and decided locally, but leading to a funding agreement with national government.
If five-year plans and performance agreements are made public; if academies attend local authority scrutiny committees annually to account for progress against their plans; and if local authorities are given a clear remit for accountability, high standards and intervention – then this could create a more genuinely open and locally accountable school system than we have had before. For the first time, parents would be able to see schools' ambitions, understand fully how well they are succeeding and challenge them to hold them to account.
This article can be viewed online at the Guardian website.