Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former councillor in Suffolk.
Successful businesses have short lines of communication between management and staff, whilst decision-making doesn’t require endless lengthy reports. This enables them to have control over budgets, to identify and resolve potential problems quickly, be creative and respond to changing demand from their customer base. They aren’t overwhelmed by bureaucracy slowing everything down with poor communication. This is how our best schools, whether private, local authority controlled, or academy also function. They focus resources and react to specific need, whilst fostering a high standards culture which attracts the very best people to the workplace.
Councils which are complaining about the academy programme, would do well to review how they operate and stop patronising school management. Instead of ignoring issues which are brought to their attention they should improve communication and find out what schools actually want from them.
Complacency has crept in over the years, leaving some previously good education authorities losing impetus, leading to poor outcomes for too many children. This can’t be allowed to continue; we are an advanced economy, the fifth biggest in the world, and good education is key to further successes. Consequently, the Government is right to allow schools to have their independence, and councils should embrace this change with honesty and enthusiasm, looking forward instead of back.
If they recognised their failings, as well as their strengths, streamlined services to make them more responsive and efficient, and adopted a more conciliatory approach, some schools could well favour joining an local authority-led academy chain, provided members of the public, including business leaders (from the Local Enterprise Partnership) and some existing governors and (radical) educators were on the academy board.
The future means learning from the best, sharing intelligence, including examples of where private schools have been instrumental in raising standards in the public sector – we need to encourage more such relationships, taking pride in children’s progress, rather than dismissing these institutions as elitist. Regrettably, there is little evidence of councils taking the lead in creating these partnerships, which would be so mutually beneficial.
However, at the primary school where I’m a governor, we do have such a partnership, albeit very informal. Despite being in the middle of a council estate, with a mixed population and many different languages, three pupils recently obtained scholarships to a top private school; other co-operation includes sports and music, with use of their facilities.
By September 2017 my school will have 660 pupils, including a higher than average cohort of SEN (Special Educational Needs). So, given Government policy for all schools to become academies by 2020, we will shortly have to explore the best opportunities for our children; we would prefer to be in the driving seat, rather than be forced into something further down the line. Ideally, we want a partnership which enables us to share administration, as well as to develop further SEN support and to encourage the gifted and talented. But, retaining our key parent governors would be essential.
A happy school, with high standards of behaviour and integration, it was saved from special measures last year because Ofsted recognised that we had restructured to develop a very strong governing body, including those excellent parent governors, which had already identified and taken the lead in addressing key issues.
Nevertheless, “Requires Improvement” status brings a sense of vulnerability, and after nearly a year with interim heads, who have worked hard to rebuild morale after a difficult period, we have now recruited a dynamic young Head, starting in September, who can fast track us back to ‘good’, building on the recent Her Majesty’s Inspector monitoring visit which confirmed ‘significant progress in a relatively short timeframe’.
Meantime, however, we are grateful to the council for its belated support, although navigating the bureaucracy can be tortuous and time-consuming. Too often, decisions are still taken without any consultation: for example, we were told that our special hearing/language units will be directly managed by the local authority from the autumn, but the children will continue to be included in our data, yet the staff will not be managed by the Head Teacher! So far, our many questions concerning educational outcomes, responsibility for on site health and safety, as well as allocation of costs, remain unanswered.
Corporate Property is another nightmare, despite the school paying an annual fee for its ‘expertise’, and being charged for repairs, albeit having no control over choice of contractor and costs which inevitably impact on the school budget. Standing on a large site the school building is Listed Grade II, which inevitably brings its own problems when it comes to maintenance, because everything within the curtilage is also listed – even a redundant bike shed with collapsed asbestos roof which the school could have commissioned a registered contractor to remove from site during the school holidays; instead, we have to wait for Corporate Property and Listed Building consent. This is especially galling, when the Corporate Property advisor revealed that this structure had been ‘of concern to me for some time’ prior to its collapse.
Consequently, governors are now commissioning their own 10-year maintenance plan, prioritising urgent works (and there are quite a few) for discussion with the council which has already announced that no funding is available, so it promises to be an interesting debate.
These things erode confidence, and increase costs, for no logical reason.
There are undoubtedly strong council education departments, with excellent support mechanisms which are rightly reluctant to lose responsibility for their schools. Perhaps they are the ones to take the initiative by creating council-led academy chains with comprehensive strategies to challenge and enhance standards. At worst, they could be the default solution for some smaller schools, especially in rural areas. At best, they could be an ambitious school’s first choice, provided they listen and learn.